Curriculum Historical Thinking History


NB: this lesson is not politically correct, a phrase which I use broadly and literally. It may be illegal in some states.

Old US flag with holes
The 15 Stars and 15 Stripes of the eponymous “Star-spangled Banner”. Via National Museum of American History.

Alan Taylor opens his prize-winning book The Internal Enemy: War and Slavery in Virginia, 1772-1832 by recounting the story of group of enslaved young men from Virginia who freed themselves from bondage by fleeing their plantation under the cover of darkness. The men secured their freedom by paddling into Chesapeake Bay and going aboard a warship flying the British flag. Taylor does not note that his incident came in the month after the Battle of Fort McHenry, during which white American Francis Scott Key had a very different view of the Chesapeake Bay: looking from a British ship he saw an American flag that represented freedom flying in Maryland.

In these partisan times, particularly a week that includes Election Day and Veteran’s Day, students may benefit from thinking about the United States and its symbols from multiple perspectives. This presents an opportunity to practice historical thinking. Last week’s Twitter #whapchat focused on difficult topics.

Flag and anthem etiquette are currently very hot, and perhaps difficult, topics. A few years ago–before Ferguson, athletes taking a knee, and my reading of Internal Enemy–I put together a short lesson encouraging students to think historically about the various ways in which the American flag has been seen. I used this lesson with US History classes to discuss national symbols and with World History classes to discuss contextualization. It may be time to bring it back.

NB: this lesson is not politically correct, a phrase which I use broadly and literally. The American flag has not meant freedom for all Americans, not to mention all people, in all situations; in fact, sometimes seeing it signaled the opposite. But, neither is the opposite the case.

This lesson can open space for students with varied points of view to discuss the flag and the anthem. Some of my students come from families with deep reverence for symbols of the United States, while others are from families that are understandably skeptical that the freedoms others see in these symbols were and are operative for people like them. Moreover, it is hardly a binary. Some are conflicted, many already see nuance. Educators should encourage all students to embrace complexity over simplicity in order to help them to understand how context shapes the points of view of others.

In the lesson students first consider the “Star-Spangled Banner” in its own context as a poem and then a song. At a minimum I want students to see how the eponymous star-spangled banner would have been a literal sign of freedom for some, but a signifier of slavery for others. From there the lesson draws students attention to other situations, such as the Battle of Gettysburg and the Trail of Tears, in which people would have viewed American flags in a variety of contexts. The listed events relate to my interests at the time I wrote it, when I was teaching mostly US History and reading a lot about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Event A is from one of the personal narratives in A Slave No More, for instance, and Event B reflects my context as a teacher in Minnesota. In fact, the speaker at my school’s Veterans’ Day Assembly on Friday, an alumnus currently serving in the Army National Guard, referred to the sacrifice of the first Minnesota. The lesson is endlessly adaptable, and I would love to hear from teachers who have students consider additional contexts.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

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