Once upon a time, I received a request to teach US History from the Civil War to the 1960s. The class was to be taught in summer school to those 8th graders who had failed the subject and needed it for 9th grade. Since one of my three certifications was also in History, I agreed to teach the class and looked forward to a new challenge. I had ideas from years of teaching German and French.
The Principal in charge advised me not to bore them with worksheets. Not a problem. I simply resorted to my foreign language teaching skills. The class met daily for two hours and another social studies teacher was next door and was familiar with the course work. I set up a colorful bulletin board with big stars and photographed each student. The bulletin board then had my 30 “stars” in U.S. History. They deserved the very best, and I was determined to give them that.
How could I teach US History differently than during the school year? No problem. I harnessed my creativity and sewing skills. I would teach the class in costume from different time periods. I gathered my ideas and costumes from local thrift shops after class each day. I included props and music when I could. I would put vocabulary or history facts on the board for them to write on index cards.
My star pupils did not do homework so I was determined to have them read aloud from our book. It was then I discovered that some could not read aloud and understand what they had read.
Next came the questions about me. Had I taught here before? Yes. A couple days later, the next question was what school in our district had I taught in before? The high school, junior high school and middle school. By the end of two weeks, a voice from the back of the room proudly declared that she knew I was a German teacher at the high school.
At some point and after our first test, the students suddenly began writing on the index cards. What was the magic solution to get them to write on the index cards? I allowed the students to use the cards on the test. Why not? It was a great learning tool.
Oh, did I mention that I came to class each day in costume? With props? With a different voice? Our security guard saw me walk by the first day in a costume and bustle from the 1860s. He inquired: what period is that? I thought he meant what class period of the morning. No, he asked once more and when I said the 1860s. He told me I was authentic. Now I thought there’s more to him than meets the eye. He proceeded to tell me that he and his wife did Civil War Reenactments so I asked if they would visit. With the heat of summer upon them, he wore a wool army suit, and she had on a dress with bustle and a parasol. I allowed students to browse and interact with the presenters.
Did I mention that is difficult to wear a seatbelt and a bustle at the same time? My bustle consisted of wrapped roll of toilet paper on a rope tied around my waist and worn under my 1860s dress. The effect was good, but I soon learned to wear a costume which also fit in the car.
Soon the summer school teachers caught on to how much fun the class was. I certainly had the class’s attention which was part of the battle. One day I was a cowgirl with braids, boots, bandana around my neck and a fringed vest. The Twenties found me wearing an appropriate Charleston dress. With combined classes, we were taught how to dance the Charleston by a former student of mine. Some students preferred to watch us. Most danced along since the teacher was close to their age.
One day I clomped down the school hallways in my husband’s size 12 shoes, sporting the best felt moustache I had fashioned and attached with masking tape. Suspenders held my husband’s too-big-for-me pair of pants. I was the factory owner of the Widget Factory. A secretary popped out of her office and declared she thought she had seen a man. I greeted her and gave her my business card. Mr. Widget at your service. I had become the talk of summer school so I began to arrive a tad early to show what my attire was for the day.
We were making widgets using the assembly line process in a factory versus the individual craftsman. The folks at UPS gave me a huge trash bag filled with packing peanuts. The widgets required packing peanuts and toothpicks. I allowed the class to form in two groups: the assembly line folks and those who wanted to work alone as the master craftsman. I gave them directions how to make the widgets and thus started a loud, boisterous class clamoring for more peanuts and more toothpicks. We then wrapped up with a discussion of the factory assembly line versus the individual and what that means. We counted our widgets.
That summer I had numerous volunteers teach part of a class. Hula hoops for one of our classes. Poodle skirt with a self-created poodle attached using rick rack. The saddle shoes were made with white sneakers and cut-outs hole punched and glued to the shoes. One of the culminating activities was to combine all the social studies classes and English classes to hear a special lady who escaped the former Czechoslovakia where she had been a teacher. She addressed all the students and stressed the importance of working hard and doing their best. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium as she spoke of their escape from Czechoslovakia.. The homework assignment for all the students was to write a thank you letter to this former teacher and to mention what they had learned.
It never ceases to amaze me in life that all these students can be successful in life and just need a second chance sometimes. I was charged not to bore them with worksheets. Instead I mustered my creative side and wore costumes appropriate to the historical period.
Did I make a difference in the lives of these students and did they learn some history in the process? Yes, some did. Perhaps they used index cards in other classes. I learned that they loved hands-on projects like making widgets. I learned never to wear a bustle while driving a car and using the seatbelt. I loved this class! Humor in the classroom will catch them every time.