Making history fun!

Mister Morris helps to make virtual learning more fun in this original book talk on C.M. Butzer's graphic novel "Gettysburg." Often, asynchronous learning can leave us wanting more. Not today!  


Mr. Morris' lesson plans never leave out the most compelling stories from our rich history. Every day we work with multiple primary and secondary sources—from Presidential diaries and the works of renown historians to the surviving words of immigrants, workers, poets, farmers, and enslaved persons—to examine, analyze, and evaluate how our sometimes united, often divided, indivisible nation came to be. See below from Mr. Morris' Civics class: "FDR's America: A New Deal for Who?" and "Land of the Free: Japanese Internment in WW2."


For this lesson, I wanted to convey to my students “the banality of evil.” How often in a society (in this case a representational democracy), injustices and violations of civil liberties that are experienced by citizens are not always widely publicized, or known, and in many cases, ever reconciled until much later. I wanted them to get a sense for how the litigation of these injustices plays out through a stoic, unfeeling, at times inhumane legal process. I wanted them to participate in a simulation of that legal process, in order to get a sense for the discrepancies between constitutional legality and common sense moral principles. I also wanted them to learn that the Constitution and its administrators are not infallible, and that their moral interpretations of the Constitution are just as relevant to enacting public policy as they are not.


From the beginning, I believed the best way to teach this lesson was to simulate for the students what it would be like to have to make a legal decision and only later discover how their position would have changed had they had all of the information at their disposal. Like the naval report was kept secret and suppressed as evidence by the Solicitor General in the landmark Supreme Court case “Korematsu vs the United States”, I believed it was important for students to discover only afterwards, as did those who ruled on the constitutionality of Japanese internment, that officials in the government knew the policy removing Japanese-Americans from “military areas” and relocating them into concentration camps was neither a military necessity nor was it a policy pursued for the public good. Quite the opposite. It is one of the greatest moral blights to emerge from Roosevelt’s otherwise widely-celebrated administration, on par with not lending its support to anti-lynching legislation (it eventually failed in the Congress) in the 1930s.

This lesson, even when taken seriously by the students, is a difficult lesson to deliver. It requires at least 70 minutes of active participation, which is why it’s loaded with primary source objects (the postcards), a video, a compelling legal case, and a surprise twist. I structured the lesson in this way and scheduled it on a block day so that students can fully immerse themselves in the question at hand—Is constitutionality and morality the same thing? And should we always follow what the Supreme Court or President decides blindly? What recourse do we have as citizens to challenge their authority? And do we have powers, outside the Constitutional process, to resist immoral national policy? In tandem with these tough questions, I wanted students to develop their critical thinking and analytical writing skills and become more familiar with the active process of using primary source material to arrive at a consensus about a controversial national policy. I wanted them to use their oral argument and reasoning skills to come to their conclusions and to gain experience defending their positions in class discussion. Ultimately, I want them to learn that we, as the citizens, determine the contours of our national character and public morality when we actively participate (or don’t) in the busy work of democracy. Our history is full of examples where some public wrong was directed at one part of the population — and many people did nothing while others, in fact, did something; however, more often than not, all are bound by long, drawn-out legal processes that compound daily suffering and injustice upon itself. If I had more time with this lesson, I would address the children at the border held in cages as their cases pile up in lower courts. I would ask my students: “Do you think it behooves a country built on the twin ideals of individual freedom and equality for all to spend years deliberating the human rights of people, while injustice remains a daily feature for those whose rights are deliberated? How long is too long to wait for justice?” To paraphrase Dr. King: “Is justice delayed, justice denied?”

This lesson is loaded with formative assessments in the forms of formal and informal lines of questioning as well as an analytical writing assignment at the end of class. Students are required to take a position three or four times throughout the class period and almost certainly (because the lesson rolls out the way that it does) none of them will maintain the same position every time. Because this lesson requires so much delving into mundane legal processes while studying the subjugation and dehumanization of Japanese-Americans, I thought it was important in the first twenty minutes of class to humanize those whose lives were most negatively impacted. I would feel strongly that this lesson would fail were I not to communicate in full how atrocious the internment of Japanese-Americans actually was. While during the “I’m the Decider” Activity, I am playing a more neutral character than the students are used to (because I want them to come to their own conclusions), I do not want them to mistake my neutrality as an endorsement for oppression, which is why I believed it was important for students to be exposed to two sources of Japanese-Americans living through interment—the perspectives of Michi Weglyn and Saburo Masada—as well as a secondary source, Howard Zinn’s People’s History, which details the various resistance movements within the camps. I believe it would be fundamentally unfair and reckless to omit this information from my students as it would support the assumption that Japanese-Americans were willing participants in their own subjugation and enslavement.

I think this will prove a very effective lesson plan in my class. It combines some of my favorite features that were prominent in my own high school civics class—speech and debate, difficult and mature subject matter, one component that is personal and/or artistic (the post cards), as well as video documentary content.