"Unique in American History"

By Talley-Jones, Kathy | California History, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview
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"Unique in American History"

Talley-Jones, Kathy, California History

Most Americans are proud of the states they live in, but there's no question about it: California really is exceptional. It even says so in the state Department of Education's history and social science framework, which makes the case explicitly: "Students learn the story of their home state, unique in American history in terms of its vast and varied geography, its many waves of immigration beginning with pre-Columbian societies, its continuous diversity, economic energy, and rapid growth."

And when do students do this? In fourth grade, when they're ten and eleven years old. Everyone knows that kids this age have questing and challenging minds eager to explore the panoply that is California history. Most of these students are lucky to have fourth-grade teachers who are committed professionals who manage to balance the competing demands of testing, curriculum requirements, and classroom management. These teachers present a nuanced and thorough look at the state from its earliest residents right up to the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, a few focus only on the missions and the Gold Rush and then move on. Okay, we've done California, now it's time for equivalent fraction problems.

Without looking for creative ways to introduce state and local history, that's pretty much it. But the good news is that students tackle world history beginning in sixth grade. Because California is at a hub that connects so much of the world, state and local history can illuminate international studies. Many museums and nonprofit organizations located within the state provide excellent opportunities for exploring California's global connections.

Why should teachers be distracted from following the textbooks the state has adopted? Because museum collections, exhibitions, and programs can help students build the skills that are emphasized in the state framework along with the events they learn about, skills such as chronological and spatial thinking, research, evidence, point of view, and historical interpretation. Museums display artifacts that connect to historical events, provide primary materials for historical interpretation, and develop programs that lead students to understand that people involved in world events are people just like themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their friends.


The Oakland Museum of California's exhibition "What's Going On--California and the Vietnam Era" is a case in point. High schoolers study the Vietnam War in the tenth and/or the eleventh grades, in which they look at U.S. foreign policy after World War II and the causes and consequences of the Cold War. (It is, alas, often rushed through at the end of the school year, however.) The Oakland Museum exhibition brings home ways in which "California was the epicenter of the war's national front. Within its boundaries were most of the nation's defense contractors, principal military centers from which troops were trained and transported, centers of legendary peace and anti-draft protests, the vanguard of the New Right politics ushered in by Reagan's election [as governor] in 1966, and the portal for most of the returning military and Southeast Asian immigrants."

Teachers might be able to find personal connections with the war, even though it ended more than thirty years ago, in every one of their classes. Not only is the war still palpable in today's political debate, but students all over the state have relatives, friends, or neighbors who worked for military contractors, served in the military, protested or supported the war, or who immigrated from Southeast Asia as a consequence. Some of these community members will be willing to come to the classroom and talk about their experiences. The Community in the Classroom website suggests ways to locate speakers and develop questions for them.

The Oakland Museum exhibition includes photos, letters, TV news footage, music, oral histories, and clothing.

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