By Suzanne Costner, School Library Media Specialist, Fairview Elementary School, Blount County, Tennessee
This year, Southern Rambles will publish occasional posts from the Center for Historic Preservation’s partners and former students. We are grateful to Suzanne Costner, last summer’s teacher-in-residence with our Teaching with Primary Sources–MTSU program, for being our first guest-blogger.
Over the summer, I had the privilege of working with the Teaching with Primary Sources–MTSU program as an educator-in-residence. For those who aren’t familiar with the program, MTSU’s Center for Historic Preservation is one of the TPS consortium members that helps provide training and support for teachers in using the digitized content of the Library of Congress. When an educator is chosen for the residency program, she or he works with the TPS–MTSU staff to explore the online content and develop lesson plans and resources for other educators to use. As part of that program, I wrote a lesson plan focusing on “The Star Spangled Banner.” My idea was to involve the art and music teachers as part of the learning experience. I included ideas for having the students sing the iconic song during music class and create patriotically themed artwork during art class.
When my principal scheduled my evaluation/observation for November, I decided to use “The Star-Spangled Banner” lesson, knowing it would coincide with Veterans Day. In this way, the song would relate to something happening in the students’ lives and have a meaningful connection.
In preparation for the lesson, I made a few modifications since it would be taking place during library class and not in the regular classroom. That placed limitations on the length of the lesson because students would also need to choose and check out library books during a 40-minute period. Rather than having the students write out an essay describing their reaction to the song and identifying words and phrases that made the biggest impression on them, I used a die-cut machine and created red, white, and blue stars on which they could record the word or phrase that stood out to them. As an additional time-saver, I would have them jot down on the back of the star an occasion when they had heard the song performed, rather than having a discussion about it with the whole group. When my principal and I had our pre-observation conference, I explained my concerns about the time limits and the changes I had made to the lesson plan. We discussed my goals and objectives, and he told me that he was looking forward to his visit with the class.
On the day of the lesson, the students came in, dropped off their books at the circulation desk, and went to their seats. I explained that we would be looking at a famous document and talking about its meaning and importance. I asked them what they thought of when they heard the word “document.” One student said it was an important record like a driver’s license or a birth certificate. Another said it was something that has information in it, like a journal or even a computer file. I was very impressed that they all had a good grasp on the concept of a document.
Then I passed out copies of the original hand-written manuscript for the song and asked them to study it and look for clues about what it was, where and when it was written, etc. I wasn’t sure how many of them could actually read cursive, but one student looked at the first line and called out, “This is the Star Spangled Banner!” We talked about the events surrounding the creation of the song, and then I handed out the typed song sheet with all the lyrics on it. I remarked that this was a patriotic song, and asked them what “patriotic” meant. A student explained that it was something that showed pride in our country and had national ideas in it. Then I asked them to find phrases that fit that definition and share them with the class. Many of them focused on words from the chorus like “land of the free,” and “home of the brave.” But others looked through all the verses and pulled out phrases like “In God is our trust.” When we talked over their choices, they explained that it even says “In God We Trust” on our currency, so that was definitely a patriotic phrase.
I handed out the precut stars and told them what kinds of things I wanted them to write on the front and on the back. We discussed a few examples of where they might have heard or seen a performance of the song. My principal was amused, and a little flattered, when several students said they had heard him sing it before a ball game at school. When they had finished with their writing, I asked if anyone had further thoughts to share about the lesson or about patriotic songs or documents. A student raised his hand and said, “When I hear ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ I can feel my heart start really pumping in my chest.” Another said, “My mom always gets tears in her eyes when they play it at the ball games.” A third said, “I like it when they play it at the track before the races and everyone stands up.” I told them we would listen to some performances of the song during their next library class, and they wanted to know why we couldn’t do that right away. I had to remind them that it was almost time for their homeroom teacher to come and get them.
When I had the follow-up conference for my observation, the principal told me he was very impressed with the lesson. He mentioned the comments the students had made and how on target they had been. He also said that he would have performed the song for us, if we had asked him, and then laughed. The results of the observation were all 4s and 5s on my ratings. Special strengths noted were making the lesson relevant, appealing to various learning styles, and addressing content-area standards. There were also points for promoting higher-order thinking, knowing my students and their ability levels, and my content-area knowledge. As we wrapped up, he said that he liked the way art and music had been included in the lesson and how it had all tied into the program for the holiday.
Teachers may feel intimidated by the idea of using primary sources in their lessons, but these documents and images promote higher-order thinking because students must use background knowledge to understand and analyze the sources. Students also respond well to firsthand accounts of historical events and are encouraged to look for other sources to corroborate or refute the information within those accounts. Analyzing primary sources encourages critical thinking and gives students a great opportunity to engage with history.
In addition, allowing students to interact with the material and approach it in their own ways makes the lesson flow much more smoothly. Since I gave my class the choice of sharing a word or a phrase from the song, they didn’t feel as if they might give a wrong answer–they could explain how it reflected their idea of a patriotic image. Giving them a chance to share a memory of a performance of the song validated their own experiences– whether it was at a Little League game, the 411 Race Track, or watching the Olympics. And they all had the shared experience of practicing and performing the song for the program.
In the end, it was a positive experience for all the students, the 4th grade teachers were happy that I had covered those standards, the art and music teachers were excited to be involved, parents and visitors loved the display of students’ work, and my principal gave me an excellent rating on my observation. What more could you want out of a lesson?