“Is This Right?” Using Art to Debate Characters in History

Guest blogger: Marcy Nuytten, Lakeview Public Schools

“Is This Right?”

"Discovery of Nat Turner." Engraving by William Henry Shelton.
“Discovery of Nat Turner.” Engraving by William Henry Shelton.

I hate, despise, loathe this question from my students.  I set out to stop my students from asking me this question. It seems they would rather have me do the thinking for them rather than spend a moment thinking for themselves. They only seemed to be concerned with the perfect score not the lesson. They were often equally frustrated with my response of “why do you think your response is right?”

So, this quest lead me to the book, “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”  Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12 by Bruce A. Lesh.  I have created various versions of the lesson ideas in the book using pop culture images.  I have enjoyed using the lessons from the book because it forces students to think about history differently. One premise of the book is that history is about the questions, not the answers.  Setting up lessons using Lesh’s suggestions helps students come to learn there is not necessarily one right answer.   We have discussions  in class about historical thinking and that often times historical answers are uncertain and unfinished rather than right or wrong.  The lessons force the students to go  beyond the despised question “is this right?”

I regularly use art to introduce the lessons and discussions. So much so that my students know if I have art on the board they will be doing some historical thinking.   Lesh’s lesson from his book focuses on Nat Turner. The lesson asks students to determine using images of Nat Turner whether he is an American Hero or an American Villain.   If you look for images of Nat Turner some images distinctly show him as a hero, others very clearly depict him as a villain.  We as a class look at approximately eight images of Nat Turner: some modern, some primary sources, some reproductions.  We discuss each image and debate if Nat Turner is a hero or villain and what cues in the image draw us to the conclusion.   We discuss the artist’s perspective and the historical context of the image. For this lesson the students then look at written primary and secondary sources which are located in Lesh’s book to draw their own conclusion of hero or villain with supporting details.   We then hold a class debate on his hero or villain status.

Other topics this same format has worked well for me are: westward expansion, Columbus, Nixon, the dropping of the atomic bombs, Bonnie and Clyde. The use of pop culture images for these lessons is easy to come by with a quick google search and some time.  The more familiar the students already are with the images the more interested they become in the story or controversy behind the image.


Fashion: Changing Styles for Changing Times

Guest blogger: Carol Bliss Quinn, Bagley High School

“A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.”

-George Bernard Shaw

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”

– Henry David Thoreau

American fashions, 1899. Library of Congress
American fashions, 1899. Library of Congress

When people talk about fashion its easy to picture a young woman with the latest trend of clothing style. Just as fashion has changed from hoop skirts to shorter dresses and the addition of pants for women, men have also seen drastic changes in what is considered “fashionable”.

From photos of Ambrose Burnside during the Civil War to those of the latest pop music groups, the type of facial hair and choice of chapeau reflects personal beliefs in style. The addition of new materials such as denim, silks, polyesters and others has helped to identify how we see men of different working classes, differing social statuses and differing styles. From John B. Stetson and the cowboy hat, to the creation of blue jeans by Levi Strauss we have developed an American style of clothing for men. The Mad Men suits of the 1950s are as recognizable as the Leisure Suits of the 1970s. Some even characterize an entire state as “Cheese Heads” because of their choice of chapeau.

We have added to the American vocabulary by distinguishing ourselves as either blue-collar or white-collar workers. We have been told to “keep it under your hat” or “throw your hat in the ring” but many of these sayings mean little to kids today without background.  To try and impress upon students the changes to men’s fashions as well as women’s we look at the history of men’s facial hair and hats from 1850s to today.

The 1920s and 30s reflected social class, income and occupation well. It is easy to find images of post WWI to Dust Bowl images and begin a discussion of prioritizing expenditures for style and fashion. The 1940s and WWII also offer images of the role of the military in creating and perpetuating fashion trends.

The 1950s offered starched white shirts with a tie, yet some chose the leather jacket look popularized by James Dean. The societal issue of conformity to style and freedom to look and dress as you wished are largely confusing to kids today who are much more comfortable with a variety of clothing styles and choices. The power of television cannot be understated.

The 1960s and 1970s perhaps most easily reflects the divisions politically within our country and it is reflected in the styles men wore. From fringe, tie-dye and long hair to clean-shaven, suit and tie looks we could identify many of the larger issues debated in society. Political beliefs about the role of the United States in Vietnam could be seen in style. This also opens up discussion of the military and their changing requirements of personal grooming and style choices through time, especially with the later inclusion of women.

One of the assignments students complete during the year is to collect from each unit an item of popular culture. Structured to be the same type item throughout the year it offers students at the end of the class a look to how it has changed over time. Although it isn’t restricted to just fashion, it is interesting to see the reflections students have on how time and available materials as well as disposable income have changed and influenced what we see as fashionable today.

Nothing will start a discussion like an image of a straight razor and strap. Even when you add the image of a brush and discuss the lathering process, that blade will get kids talking. The technological advances in shaving are something both genders can appreciate, especially when they see how quickly things have improved. Throw in a couple YouTube videos from the 1970s and a discussion of how cool “Grizzly Adams” beard was and you will get kids talking for days.

“43 Favorite Quotes about Men’s Style”

“Ambrose Burnside,” in Lillian C. Buttre, The American Portrait Gallery : with biographical sketches of presidents, statesmen, military and naval heroes, clergymen, authors, poets, etc., etc (New York: J.C. Buttre, c1877), I: np.

“American Hats, National Museum of American History”

“The Origin of Blue Jeans”

“Victoriana Magazine”

The Pop Culture of Games

Guest blogger: Barb Schwarz, Benson Secondary School

What is the last card game, board game, or online game that you have played?  Games of all kinds are a big industry. We are drawn to manipulate the cards, dice, play money and metal or plastic gadgets that come with them. The idea and fun of engaging in a competition draws some of us in.  According to the Boston Globe, plenty of people are still playing board games.  In fact, the sale of board games has seen a steady rise in the last few years.  The Boston Globe is calling it the Golden Age of table top games.  Do you remember the games that you played growing up? Games like Scrabble, Pictionary, Taboo, Candy Land, Battleship, Boggle, Parcheesi, Risk, Life, Clue, Sorry and Monopoly, just to name a few.  As teachers we can take a look at what is popping to see if we can find a way to incorporate the ingenuity of the creator into our classrooms.  Two that I think are good possibilities are Monopoly and Spot It.

This year Monopoly is 80 years old with 275 million games sold worldwide, with availability in 111 countries and 43 languages.  According to Monopoly was Designed to Teach the 99% About Income Inequality at Smithsonian.com, Monopoly was invented by a woman named Lizzie Magie.  She invented Monopoly in 1904 and called it the Landlord’s Game, in which the patent eventually sold to Parker Brothers for $500 in 1935.   This game could be used to meet U.S. History, Economic, Math, Family and Consumer Science, and Literacy Standards with goals in the rise of business, management of money, vocabulary and communication as seen in some of the lessons found online that you can link to:

If you are still not convinced playing the game of Monopoly can be beneficial in the classroom listen to the interview of Philip Orbanes by Daniel Bortz, “What Money Can Teach You about Smart Investing.”  Orbanes is the author of the new book “Monopoly, Money, and You: How to Profit from the Game’s Secret of Success.”  He has also spent more than 30 years judging the United States and World Monopoly Championships.

gamesAnother game that I modify to meet my own needs is Spot It, made by Blue Orange Games.  This is a card game made up of 57 symbols, represented on 55 cards with 8 symbols per card.  (Don’t try to figure it out as it will make you go crazy!) In the real game there is only one matching symbol between any two cards in the deck. At the same time, players flip over their cards to spot the one symbol that appears both on the center card and own card.  If you are the first player to do so and call it out then you get to take the center card and flip it face-up on top of your flipped card, building a personal pile.  Object is to get the most cards.

I use the concept of the cards to create a classroom set of cards from a decade of pop culture.  I have lists created of 57 items from each decade, each group getting a smaller list of 16 with the one circled they must include on each card (each group makes four cards, each two have an object that matches).  Students create the cards electronically, fill in data on the additional sheet I provided and then we use those cards to share before we attempt to play the game of Spot It.  When I build my classroom deck I really don’t get so concerned with the necessity to have matches but rather more concerned with student knowledge about the pop culture of each decade we are building cards for. If we find we have cards that do not match we simply flip them over and continue on. I keep all the cards on 8.5″ x 11” paper and sometime even have a chance to laminate them before we play. If the game doesn’t work in the classroom, there are many different versions of the real game. I can pull them out to take a moment of fun.  Here is an example of my list of the 1940s and with it samples of the card they will place their images in and what they will record.

Students can take ownership in the games they make.  The process is interactive and social.  They can showcase their skills, knowledge and talents by creating them as well as showing their competitive side by playing them.

We have all used some form of game in our classroom.  With standards-based education we sometimes forget to take a moment and add to our lessons creating flair to necessary tasks like grammar, vocabulary and review.

In the extension of games, technology has created the opportunity to play table top games on smart devices with free apps.  You can find “Dobble” as the European version of “Spot It” on your smart phone.  Monopoly has become so  big that we have progressed to television game shows of Monopoly, you can play it online, on game channels, on your phone and there are festivals around the world that encourage the playing of the board game versions.  Keeping up with the trends and finding a way to make them useful in education is the challenge.  At times, technology itself is the challenge.

Some students will have graduated to other forms of gaming through technology like “Words with Friends”, “Call of Duty”, “Candy Crush”, “Angry Birds”, “Grand Theft Auto”, “Mario Bros”, “Madden NFL” or “Minecraft”, (There are various sites online for using “Minecraft” in the classroom for reading, writing and math).   Skills acquired by students engaging in games on their own time has been sought out by the military for coding skills or guiding laser beams and missiles to flying drones and manipulating bomb seeking robots.  What will be the pop culture in games of the future?

Educationally, there is also something to getting back to the basics and teaching the simplicity of board game.  Maybe just getting together and playing the game, whichever one it is, can be a pop culture fad in itself!  Maybe one of your students will be the next Lizzie Magie with the inspiration to create something new.  Whichever it is, using a board game to spin new ideas from the grassroots of human interaction to creating new and challenging ideas in technology can’t be all bad.

Work Cited

A Project of the Southern Law Center. (2015). The Real Monopoly: America’s Racial Wealth Divide. Retrieved from Teaching Tolerance.

Atwood, J. (2015). Stack Exchange. Retrieved from Mathematics.

Bortz, D. (2013, March 20). What Monopoly Can Teach You About Smart Investing. Retrieved from US News and World Report Money.

Dodson, E. J. (2011, December). How Henry George’s Principles Were Corrupted. Retrieved from Henry George Institute.

Gaming, H. (2015). Monopoly. Retrieved from Hasbro Gaming Monopoly.

Gilsdorf, E. (2014, November 26). Board Games are Back and Boston’s A Player. Retrieved from the Boston Globe.

Murray, J. (2015). Minecraft in the Classroom Teaches Reading and More. Retrieved from Teachhub.com.

Pilon, M. (2015, January). Monopoly Was Designed to Teach the 99% About Income Inequality. Retrieved from Smithsonian.com.

Selman, D. (2002-2014). Monopoly Matters. Retrieved from Alabama Learning Exchange.

Tribett, G. (2015). Monopoly Lesson Plan. Retrieved from Manchester University.

Word Press. (2015). Click Americana Memories and Memorabilia.

The Roaring 20s: Teaching with Jazz

Guest blogger: Theo Derby, Saint Charles High School

Want to make pop culture really come alive in your classroom?  Bring live pop culture TO your classroom!

This can especially be done through the power of music.  And, your class can learn a thing or two about America’s unique contribution to the history of music… jazz.  This will especially fit into your U.S. History 1920s Unit.  My friend and excellent teaching buddy, Mr. Jeremy Nelson (now of Park Christian High School), developed this lesson plan that really makes the Roaring 20s come alive!  I would like to tell you about it with some of the modifications I’ve used.

Louis Armstrong. Library of Congress photograph.
Louis Armstrong. Library of Congress photograph.

The vision is to invite local musicians that know and appreciate jazz into your classroom and turn your classroom into a one-day “Cotton Club” with live music.  The prep includes introducing and discussing jazz and its importance the day or days before the Club.  Notes, images, hand-outs, and all the usual teaching apparatus can be used to give a good introduction to the topic.  The teacher, if time permits, can even do a quick redecoration of the door of his/her classroom with a “Cotton Club” façade, candles on the desks/tables, a few streamers, blacked-out windows, and a Cotton Club Program hand-out.

The logistics include clearing this project with administration (if necessary), contacting local musicians you know and trust to perform for free (two to three good musicians can pull this off… I’ve even seen one fantastic jazz keyboardist pull it off by himself!)  The musicians should then be encouraged to follow a set-list of genre-representative songs that take the students from the roots of jazz in New Orleans (which could include a funeral celebration rendition of “The Saints Come Marching In”) through four or five stages (genres) of jazz which could include: swing, bebop, cool, smooth, contemporary, etc.  Each song should be introduced by the teacher or musician and then interwoven with what was discussed in the jazz lesson prep the day before.  These highlights could include: African music and African-American influence, the importance of improvisation, the call and response format. Basically, you can stay simple or take the presentation as deep into jazz and jazz theory as you, and/or your musicians, would like. The lesson would conclude with a writing assignment such as follows:

Cotton Club

I have attached a sample Cotton Club Program hand-out that is just a prototype.  I cannot recommended using this sample as it most likely contains copyrighted images and information that could not be replicated for hand-outs without permission from a lot of websites/people.  (That would be a bit more legwork for the instructor personalizing this lesson plan.)  But I believe the sample is still valuable to anyone thinking of doing a live jazz lesson such as this.  This lesson takes a lot of prep work but has also been one of the most rewarding and memorable I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.  Kids WILL remember it!

Cotton Club Program Hand-Out (example only; check copyright before re-creating)

Teaching About Japanese-American Internment

Guest blogger: Kim Schiller, International School of Minnesota

Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943. Photograph by Ansel Adams. Library of Congress.
Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943. Photograph by Ansel Adams. Library of Congress.

When I first started teaching, I attended a five week NEH Summer Institute on “Picturing America: Cinematic representations of Ethnic Diversity.” One of the weeks was on the Japanese-American experience and a large part of what we looked at was the Internment Camp experience.

One of the movies we watched was “Farewell to Manzanar.” Written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, it is her memories of spending the war in Manzanar Internment Camp. She also was a driving force to bring the movie to the small screen. For many years it was not available in any format, but within the past two years it has been reissued on DVD and available through Japanese American Museum store.

From Amazon.com on the book: Jeanne Wakatsuki was seven years old in 1942 when her family was uprooted from their home and sent to live at Manzanar internment camp–with 10,000 other Japanese Americans. Along with searchlight towers and armed guards, Manzanar ludicrously featured cheerleaders, Boy Scouts, sock hops, baton twirling lessons and a dance band called the Jive Bombers who would play any popular song except the nation’s #1 hit: “Don’t Fence Me In.” Accelerated Reader (AR) level: 7.4 and 8.0 points.

I was immediately intrigued because our 9th grade text had one short paragraph on the Japanese internment. At the time there wasn’t too much available that would be appropriate for high school, so I set out to do my curriculum project on the camps, focusing on the book. It’s morphed over the years and rather than lay everything out here, I’ve provided a lot of links that are invaluable to me as I teach it every year. I have the luxury of spending several weeks on the camps, but I do assign the book the first week of term two (right after Thanksgiving) and it’s not due until the first week of February. Students must do the AR test with at least an 80% passing score.

The book and images (see many of the websites below as well as the Library of Congress) portray people trying to live normal lives in an extraordinary situation, including playing baseball. Great discussions are always had as the students typically wonder how the internees could do all these “normal” things when they couldn’t leave. We also go over the loyalty questionnaire with the two very controversial questions. However, the whole questionnaire is VERY specific and detailed. The students are amazed at how much information is requested and how much THEY could not answer. A pdf of the questionnaire is available online.

There are many other aspects of the Internment Camps that can be covered time permitting, including the contribution of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Connections to Minnesota include those who came to Camp Savage to do translation work and after the war stayed in Minneapolis. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) is quite active here in Minnesota and is very willing to share resources. Sally Sudo is the contact person for the Twin Cities Chapter of the JACL.

Another great non-fiction book, loaded with photos and quotes from internees is “Remembering Manzanar.” From Best Children’s Books website: “Loaded with haunting photographs and quotes from former residents (which were published in their newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press), this non-fiction title describes and provides photographs of the Manzanar Internment Camp and the living conditions and daily lives of the Japanese Americans who were interned there.”

If you teach younger children or ELL students, another great book is “Baseball Saved Us.” From the above website: “Set in a Japanese internment camp during WW2, [the book] is the moving story of a young boy and his father, who built a baseball diamond to pull the camp together.”

A list of other great resources:

And, lest one think the Internment camps have faded in to the mists of time, the following appeared last week on George Takei’s Facebook page. Mr. Takei has been an outspoken activist on preserving and articulating the Internment Camp experience in the public consciousness. He was interned in Rohwer, Arkansas and Tule Lake, California as a young boy with his family.

An auction of artifacts from the Internment Camps has been pulled and George Takei will be working with the auction house. As Mr. Takei says on his Facebook page: “Following an afternoon of calls, I am very pleased that Rago Auctions, which was set to sell-off artwork of Japanese American internment camp survivors, has announced it will withdraw the art pieces that were for sale. Rago and I will sit down with interested Japanese American institutions and parties to ensure that the collection will find a home where the pieces will be properly cared for and curated. These irreplaceable works represent the struggles and indomitable spirit…They are shining symbols from a dark time—a chapter that we must never repeat, and never forget. Now we can ensure that these pieces are not lost to history.” The original article is from the New York Times.

United “Selfies” of America … USA Today

Guest blogger: Sara Beyer, Loyola Catholic Intermediate School, Mankato

On an average week, I approximately spend 60 hours with middle school students and athletes.  It seems that words such as “selfie” and “hashtag” have fallen into my daily vocabulary by assimilation this past year.  It is safe to say that there isn’t a day that there is not a discussion about someone’s snap story, Instragram post or Vine from the day before that I overhear in my classroom, hallways, bus or sporting event. Social media has invaded our teens’ lives.

After April’s webinar, the infatuation of the “selfie” from our cohort stuck with me.  So many wanted to know how to incorporate these new pop-culture trends into our classrooms.  Being a Snapchat junkie, I began to feel guilty how much I use multimedia along with my students.  So I investigated the usage within my school and compared them with findings of that on the Internet.

Statistics from growingwireless.com say that the average age a child receives their first phone is 12.1.  56% of kids from age eight to twelve have them and it rises up to 78% when you look at the age pool of twelve to seventeen.  Of these cell phones, nearly three out of four of them are smart-phones (having the ability to use data).

When I polled my students, I found that my students were higher than the nation’s findings.  I work in a private Christian school in Mankato, Minnesota. The city’s population of a little over 40,000 people and is big and diverse enough to have 18 K-12 schools.  Of the 88 middle school students in my classes, 89% have their own phones and 82% of them have phones with social media.  As a first-year teacher, it astonishing see how differently the classroom’s technology has changed in just six years when I was sitting in my senior high classroom rocking the flip-phone on a 100 text message per month plan!

selfie wallSo how do we capitalize on the “selfie” or other social media apps in our social studies classes? I have found a few fun ways in which I incorporate them into my classroom.  For those of you that have the app “Snapchat”, there is a new tool recently added.  You now can go into the application and click on events that are trending.  Yesterday I watched 120 seconds worth of selfie-videos from individuals in Dubai! A few months ago I watched New York’s Fashion Week clips and watched close up footage of Superbowl XLIV.  When students take the two minutes to watch these videos, they are being exposed to authentic footage of culture, especially pop culture around the world!

selfie wall 2The most successful assignment with pop culture being incorporated in my classroom was with the eighth graders in Geography. I made a quick five-point assignment that became a rage of the “wall of 8th graders” in my room.  Each student was to find imagery that represented what he or she loves about culture as an American teenager. They were to focus on religion, fashion, food, heritage, music and fads.  The only words that could be on this collage were their name.  The students were expressing themselves in a way that I couldn’t tell them was wrong.  Pictures of their families and friends, famous artists and athletes and hobbies covered my wall for a month. My quiet students were able to brightly display to their peers in a positive light who they are in today’s fast and coming technological world.  Even though it’s not the typical “selfie” it’s an appropriate one that fits into school.  It is crazy to not consider the fact of incorporating our students’ favorite social media apps when it consumes their lives outside the school; might as well get on proactive train for cell-phone technology.

Works Cited

“Kids Wireless Use Facts.” Kids Wireless Use Facts. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

“Welcome to Mankato.” City of Mankato, Minnesota: About Mankato. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

“Just Do It”: Jumping into Pop Culture

Guest blogger: Emily Miller, Roseau High School

I’ll admit my insecurities upfront.  Writing for something like this makes me nervous.  It’s partly the perfectionist in me, the over-achiever.  It makes me wonder: Do I do enough?  Are my ideas “been there, done that?”  Am I going to get a virtual side-eye from 20 other teachers? And, just like we would ask our students to do, I will set aside, or step over, those insecurities and “just do it” (advertising in pop culture reference, an added bonus).

There are a few lessons I have throughout the year that focus on pop culture, and this cohort has helped me work to integrate it as well, making connections as we go.  This year I’ve put together two separate assignments that could be applied to any decade, any time period, and encourages students to be the explorer instead of the receiver of information. When studying the 1920s my students created a (digital) time capsule of ten items that would help someone understand what the 1920s were like.  I introduced it by having them come up with items they would put into a capsule in 2015 for someone to open in 100 years.  What would represent life now?  Then, do that for the 1920s.

Dinner party, 1943. Photo: National Park Service
Dinner party, 1943. Photo: National Park Service

I was looking for something else one day, probably in the glorious black hole of Pinterest, when I saw something that gave me a “lightbulb” moment. It was the idea of planning a dinner party. I’m not sure what the original lesson was about. I just saw the phrase, and my mind started running.  Gotta love it when inspiration hits!  I’m positive that I’m not the only one who thought of this, but it still felt good in the moment. The idea could again be applied to any decade, any time period, but I will likely use it for the 1950s.  Giving students options usually creates a bit more buy-in, so they get to choose the medium they use to put the project together: create a display, poster board, a PowerPoint, Prezi, iMovie, etc., that would present the plan for a dinner party.  Required elements of the party would include:

  • Create a diverse guest list of 10 people, significant to that era
  • Plan a 3 or 4 course menu, based on popular cuisine
  • Select a playlist: 5-10 songs that would play in the background while people dined
  • Provide 3-5 topics of conversation at the table (pertinent news events, figures in pop culture, new medical developments, new movies, etc.)
  • Optional pieces could be to have a viewing party: choose a movie or show, required attire, or a reading of a short story or poem.
  • And, of course, I’d have students provide the reasoning behind the decisions, the ever-present question of “why?” or “explain your choices.”

It seems to create better engagement and conversation when there’s opportunity to share.  If your students are like mine, they aren’t too keen on presenting in front of a class, but they do pretty well in small group settings. That gives them a chance to show their work to their fellow students; I love overhearing the discussions that organically evolve.

It’s not a lesson all about pop culture, but maybe that’s the point- it’s integrated, just as it is in real life.  Too bad students can’t bring in food any more. That would be a great extra credit opportunity! I can just picture it: Tang, Spam, McDonald’s, Jell-O Salad, Frosted Flakes, chicken tetrazzini and TV Dinners.

Webinar with MIA: American Art and Pop Culture (and Selfies)

Cohort member Barb Schwarz getting into the spirit of things with a webinar-selfie.
Cohort member Barb Schwarz getting into the spirit of things with a webinar-selfie.

Last night, our cohort teachers gathered virtually for a 90-minute webinar on pop culture and art. Our presenter was Sheila McGuire from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and she corralled an amazing amount of information in that hour and a half. She discussed the arc of 20th century American art, focusing in on American Indian art, the Harlem Renaissance, and FSA-OWI photography.

We also talked a bit about selfies, and Sheila confirmed that it’s okay to take selfies in museums, because art is relevant to everyone and it’s good for us to see ourselves in it. The chat was very lively as well, with teachers sharing ideas and information and teaching strategies.

Thanks to Sheila for taking time out of her evening schedule to be with us in the Minnesota Historical Society’s interactive video conferencing lab, and to IVC guru Jack Matheson for being there to help us play with the green screen.

The Cult of True Womanhood in Women’s Magazines

Guest blogger: Kara Redding, St. Paul Preparatory School

I have to make a confession. I love women’s magazines. Even though I intellectually understand that they are 75% a vehicle for advertisements targeted at female consumers, there is something relaxing about reading a how-to column on how to best sort laundry or cook a new recipe. It’s like receiving advice from a wise older sister.

Though nowadays, I don’t see girls with magazines hidden inside their textbooks in my U.S. History class, I know that this type of popular media hasn’t disappeared. In many ways, it’s migrated online to websites like The Beauty Department and Pinterest. Women who have gained fans and fame on YouTube are sent samples of clothing, makeup, and other beauty products to promote on their web shows. Demands on female behavior have been set to print for as long as the United States has been a country, even prior. Women’s magazines can tell us a great deal about the expectations and demands placed on female behavior throughout U.S. History. Teaching women’s history through these publications can help students relate to the experiences of American women by comparing the social demands of the day to those they experience themselves in modern times.

"A New England kitchen. A hundred years ago."  H. W. Pierce, c. 1876. Accessed through the Library of Congress.
“A New England kitchen. A hundred years ago.” H. W. Pierce, c. 1876. Accessed through the Library of Congress.

Rather than suggest materials readily available from the 1920s or the 1950’, I’d like to suggest some resources and a simple lesson related to the mid-19th century Cult of True Womanhood. Often referred to as the Cult of Domesticity (especially in AP materials), I think this principle is key to understanding the mainstream expectation of women in U.S. society in the 19th century. It tells us a great deal about women’s sphere of influence and can provide context for reform movements like temperance and suffrage and the challenges women faced trying to make a difference outside of their own homes. Even the municipal housekeepers of the Progressive Era justified their actions through the Cult of True Womanhood and Jane Addams, as late as 1910, framed her arguments for women’s suffrage around the traditional domestic role.

In my classroom, I frame my entire Early Republic unit around the role of women and the birth of the Cult of True Womanhood. Between the Market Revolution, the Second Great Awakening, and the Reform movements of the early 19th century, I can think of no better context to frame the role of women in American society, especially given the fact that the Cult of True Womanhood remained hugely influential on the middle and upper classes long past the turn of the century. Women are still arguably impacted by its remnants today.

Introducing the Cult of True Womanhood to ELL students can be a daunting task, as it is very conceptual and represents a set of ideals rather than a set of absolute truths. It can be hard for less experienced language learners to define. So I have excerpted and adapted a few quotes from a variety of publications not so unlike the women’s magazines of our modern day. By connecting student experiences with popular media advising women towards the ideal female behaviors then and now, they can apply and expand their understanding through experience rather than a long and lengthy lecture from me (which many ELL students easily tap out of).

By taking the time to introduce this set of ideals, we can give students a framework that they can use to understand the actions of women in history, both in outright resistance to the Cult of True Womanhood and in compliance. The reform movements of the early 19th century take on new light as women’s moral authority (as derived from their piety and purity) is clearly restricted to social issues like education, prison conditions, and slavery, as illustrated in this quote from Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“’Well, but is it true that they have been passing a law forbidding people to give meat and drink to those poor colored folks that come along? I heard they were talking of some such law, but I didn’t think any Christian legislature would pass it!’

‘Why, Mary, you are getting to be a politician, all at once.’

‘No, nonsense! I wouldn’t give a fig for all your politics, generally, but I think this is something downright cruel and unchristian. I hope, my dear, no such law has been passed.’”

– Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ch.9, 1853

This framework remains relevant throughout the Progressive movement and can be used to define the backlash against changes to women’s roles in the 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s. Women’s magazines and publications serve as an excellent foundation for analysis of women’s social history from a wide variety of eras in U.S. History. They further provide an access point, as does much of popular culture, for students to empathize with actors in history and draw connections between human experiences past and present.

Lesson Plan: Cult of True Womanhood (PDF)

Additional Resources:

 “The Cult of Domesticity” Lucinda MacKethan. Lesson plan for America in Class from the National Humanities Center.

“Godey’s Lady’s Book Archive,” Accessible Archives.

“The Making of a Homemaker,” Smithsonian Archive.

“Notes on the Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood,” Catherine Lavender, 1998.

“The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” Barbara Welter, 1966. 

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