Friday, July 13, 2012

Teaching Jefferson - Reflecting on Monticello

Background : I applied last year for a Barringer Research Fellowship to study Thomas Jefferson at Monticello for two weeks this summer.  my research proposal included researching Jefferson and creating a Twitter feed in which followers could learn a little bit about him each day of the year through links, quotes, pictures,videos, etc. I was contacted by the educational staff at Monticello and they asked me if instead I would participate in a week long teacher forum they were conducting to help in the development of new online teacher resources for Monticello.  It sounded like a unique opportunity to mix history and technology so I jumped at the chance.  I worked with the Monticello educational staff and teachers from different parts of the county with a variety of connections to Monticello on July 8-12, 2012.

Jefferson's Monticello - July 12, 2012

“The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave”.
- Thomas Jefferson

One of my personal struggles as a teacher is finding the time to prioritize the manner in which I teach U.S. history.  There are so many people, events and topics which I have enjoyed learning about and gathered resources to teach. I am challenged each year to negotiate the pace of my school year to accommodate them all.  

This week I have been fortunate enough to spend an entire week at Monticello working with the educational staff here as well as fellow teachers from different parts of the country.  We have had access to numerous resources and experts.  To borrow an often used phrase, it has been a lot like trying to get a drink from a firehouse.  I always enjoy listening to someone who has devoted a large portion of their life to the study of one topic.  You can almost see the passion ooze from their pores as they present and share. This week we have listened to scholars and researchers share their depth of understanding on Jefferson, an individual who I believe is probably one of the more intriguing and complex personalities of the founding era.

At the conclusion of workshops such as this - periods of time where I am afforded the luxury of experiencing history on a deeper level - my biggest hurdle also provides an exhilarating opportunity. How do I synthesize all this information into a condensed version which we help my 8th grade students understand this individual and the broader context of the time in which he lived?

It would not be difficult for me to devote an entire month to the study of Jefferson for there is truly that amount of compelling and engaging content available.  But reality forces me to realistically utilize about five days specifically on Jefferson, roughly 250 minutes.  

As the week here at Monticello progressed, I tried to identify several major themes that I would like my students to learn about Jefferson.  My Jefferson themes include: innovation, politics, role in western expansion, and complexity.

Gardens at Monticello - July 12, 2012

I think one of the most powerful and currently relevant aspects of Jefferson's personality is his ability to innovate.  I truly believe that the course of our nation's history in this century will be determined by our ability, or inability, to innovate.  Jefferson is often thought of as an inventor but as the Monticello curator told us in one of our lectures this week, he only truly invented one item in his life - a specifically designed plow.  What he was brilliant at was the ability to use and modify things to fit his needs. Let's be honest, very few of us will ever invent something like Twitter,  but many of us will become successful in learning how to use something like Twitter to met our needs.  I am currently half way through the Steve Jobs biography and I have found it very interesting that on multiple occasions during my time at Monticello someone has made a comparison between Jefferson and Jobs.  I think sharing with students the ways in which Jefferson was an innovator is not only "cool", but also demonstrates to students the power of design and adapt the items around you to best fit your needs.

We discuss the contributions of Jefferson politically when we study the American Revolution, but I typically also discuss the importance of Jefferson taking office as a member of a different political party and the accomplishments / tribulations of his presidency.  If I had to select one big picture message that I hope my students grasp from our discussion of Jefferson politically, specifically in terms of his contributions writing the Declaration of Independence, it would be the understanding that he utilized the writings and philosophies of many other individuals.  I think the importance of this is similar to the importance of understanding that he was more of an adapter than an inventor.  Jefferson was obviously an incredibly gifted and talented individual - I always use JFK's quote about Jefferson dining alone in the White House - but if we only hold him up as this amazing, one in a billion type of super intellectual I think we are missing a huge opportunity to teach our students that often times great ideas are truly built upon the shoulders of giants.  Teaching about Jefferson's research on the great political philosophers of history is an opportunity to again demonstrate to our students the importance of research, reading and scholarship. I also like to show students his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. If Jefferson can survive a little editing, I think we all can from time to time.

I think it is important for my students to appreciate the impact Jefferson had on our home state of Missouri as a result of his policy and personal beliefs pertaining to western expansion. As a Missouri resident I see the impact of Jefferson on a daily basis.  The land on which I live and teach is of course part of the Louisiana Purchase and when I visit our state capital I drive to Jefferson City.  The Corps of Discovery is also strongly intertwined in our local history since the expedition traveled through our county.  Beyond the political aspects of western expansion, I also feel I owe Jefferson a debt of gratitude for the passion he shared in regards to western expansion.  Jefferson helped create a buzz and a sense of urgency about exploring and claiming the west.  As someone who has lived their entire life in the flyover states, that passion brings me a little closer to Jefferson.  Virginia will always own Jefferson but I feel a connection to him as a Missourian as well.

The contradictions in Jefferson's life make him a complicated individual to teach students but it also provides a powerful lesson.  I have found that students in my classroom today like their history to be wrapped up in a nice, tidy package that they can grasp so that they can understand it and move on.  We know that history doesn't work that way.  History is messy and complicated.  Jefferson's life is a great illustration of how no one is perfect in everyone's eyes and no one can be easily defined.  I don't think that Jefferson is unique in this regard, complexities can be found in the lives of all of the Founding Fathers, but I think Jefferson's life is an interesting case in which to discuss some of these issues.

Jefferson statue on University of Virginia campus

My challenge now as I leave Monticello with a thousand ideas bouncing around inside my head is to cultivate them down to several activities that will teach my students about Jefferson in the context of those four themes.  This is a part of my profession that I love but it is also a challenge, especially in today's age of technology which provides so many directions that it is difficult sometimes to weed out what best meets your needs.  I will spend some time this summer to formulate some Jefferson lessons and when I do I will share them on this blog.

I would like to thank the Monticello education staff for an absolutely amazing week of learning, discussing and sharing.  I am afraid if I start naming names I will leave someone out.  Their staff made all of us feel so welcome and I never felt as if I was invading their turf, rather I felt as if I was being welcomed to experience the work they enjoy and for which they have so much passion.  The other participating teachers that I shared the week with are equally  incredible.  We shared ideas and talked about our profession in a way that is becoming increasing rare in education and I appreciated the opportunity.  There is just something special about discussing the founding fathers while enjoying a good meal.  The week helped my charge my batteries and get me excited about my next chance to teach Jefferson and for that I thank everyone who made it possible.

View from Montalto - the big mountain overlooking Monticello

1 comment:

  1. Hi Dr. Langhorst, I really like the four major themes about Thomas Jefferson that you identified for students. Although I'm a World History teacher, I can see how these themes can be relevant in any historical discussion, and therefore make great connections across different individuals, events, time and place. Especially the theme of innovation - adaptation, which I think is what accounts for modernity in general, and the United States & Jefferson present great contributors.
    "This is a part of my profession that I love but it is also a challenge, especially in today's age of technology which provides so many directions that it is difficult sometimes to weed out what best meets your needs." I agree! As a preservice teacher, I struggle so much to choose what ideas I'd like students to focus on and which activities are appropriate. I would love to hear more especially how you overcame the challenge of selecting (or innovating) technological use for your teaching of Jefferson & U.S. History!