Today’s CASE Conference: What Does It Mean to Be an American?

A day at a conference is always a nice change of pace and scenery. Today’s Council for American Studies Education Conference at the Chicago History Museum was a terrific learning experience that gave me a much needed late winter battery charge.

A quick note about American Studies: At our school, American Studies is an interdisciplinary course co-taught by an English teacher (that’s me) and an American history teacher. American Studies is a double-size, two-period, regular-level course that replaces Junior English and American History in students’ required course work. In addition to a survey of American history and American literature, students also study American art, music, architecture, and philosophy. For a flavor of our American Studies class, please visit The Fremd High School American Studies Ning!

Back to today. I live pretty close to the train line, but I’m not a daily commuter, so the 50-minute train ride is always a welcome change from my usual 10-minute drive to school. Today I took my Kindle and read my first downloaded book—Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. I could get used to 50 minutes of extra reading time every day as a commuter!

After arriving in Chicago, I took an early morning hike from the station to the museum, about two miles. Along the way, I saw the plaque commemorating the 1915 Eastland Disaster in the Chicago River along Wacker Drive. Although I’ve known the Eastland story for a long time due to a former student’s history fair project on it, I’d never known or seen where it actually took place. It’s hard to understand how so many could have died so close to shore.

Walking along Clark Avenue, I passed a few of Chicago’s great blues clubs, quiet this time of day, and noticed the signs for Chicago’s upcoming mayoral election, the first contested race in many years.

The conference’s theme this year was “What Does It Mean to Be an American?” American Studies is pretty good at asking questions like this, and we generate a lot of ideas and discussion, but such questions are never answered with any degree of finality, nor should they be.

The keynote presenter was poet and teacher Kevin Coval. Coval grew up as a white, Jewish, suburban kid who found profound meaning in the hip hop movement in the late 1980s and has since developed a curriculum and pedagogy based on hip hop that he has presented to hundreds of students in Chicago and elsewhere. His work as artistic director of Young Chicago Authors is the basis of the award-winning documentary Louder than a Bomb, currently playing at film festivals around the country.

When Kevin Coval visited our school’s Writers Week a few years ago, any number of students said he came across as inauthentic, and while I respect their opinions, that was not my perception today. Yes, he slipped into a hip hop persona as he delivered his poems, and some of his expressions were clearly from the hip hop idiom, but his opening story about finding his way through suburban adolescence via hip hop helped make sense of the dichotomy between the styles of his poem delivery and his other more conversational style.

As I write this, I’m feeling very un-cool because hip hop does not “speak” to me or for me. A lot of the younger teachers were nodding their heads as Coval referenced various deejays and performers who were apparently prominent twenty years ago, none of whose names I recognized. Oh, well. Maybe Mr. Coval doesn’t know about Jerry Jeff Walker or Rusty Weir.

The first breakout session I attended was one of the museum’s current exhibits, “Facing Freedom,” led by two of the museum’s docents. Focusing on various groups whose freedoms have been restricted at different times in American history, the exhibit explores what it means to be free, and how freedom has been withheld from Americans at different times. Kiosks devoted to slavery, Japanese-American internment during World War II, women’s suffrage, union boycotts of the 1960s, and Native American protests clearly conveyed the idea that American freedom, although prized, has also been compromised when it suits the purposes of those in power. I was also impressed with the online version of this exhibit that the museum will roll out in April. Their Great Chicago Stories is an excellent online resource, and the new site promises to be just as useful.

The most affecting artifact for me in this exhibit was the display of an iron head cage used to prevent slaves from escaping. Each year when an image showing a male slave wearing this contraption comes up in the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, students have questions about it. Seeing one of these devices up close is a stark reminder of slavery’s cruelty.

The second session I attended—“Becoming American: An Immigrant Nation’s Journey—Individual Rights, National Identity and the Quest for Freedom”—was led by Darryl Einhorn from Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy. She provided participants when various images, cartoons, documents from various time periods and asked us to discuss them at our tables in various ways. From this session I gained two ideas that I will definitely use in class. One involves using excerpts from “The Hispanic Challenge” by Samuel P. Huntington, an essay published in Foreign Policy (March/April, 2004) describing the specific obstacles met by Hispanics in contemporary America. The other idea involves a way of processing text in a small group. Each group member is asked to read the document and individually choose four words from it that they find provocative or important. Then all group members work together to link their chosen words in a statement or poem.

The final session was led by Maggie Freda and Steven Wiersum from Glenbard West High School: “Museum Kiosks and National Core Standards.” I thought Maggie’s name sounded familiar, and when I walked into the room, everything clicked into place! She was my student in 1998-1999! We had a very nice talk before the session began about what she remembered from our class. I’ll admit to some pride in how skillfully Maggie and her teaching partner Steven delivered their presentation. They are obviously excellent teachers, and we talked about some ways we could collaborate in the near future. Their session involved how students can incorporate research skills into designing and presenting museum-style kiosks on topics of their own choosing. Maggie and Steven also discussed how these dynamic activities are in sync with the emerging language arts strands of the National Core Standards.

Then the conference provided an excellent lunch. My colleagues and I talked about our various experiences and perceptions of the sessions we attended. What a thrill to spend time with Kevin Farrell and Sarah Greenswag from Grayslake Central High School. Kevin is another former student (Class of 2005). He and Sarah are launching an American Studies program at their school next year.

The only flaw in the conference was a lack of Internet availability, so we couldn’t provide a live Twitter backchannel or feed from the conference, something I enjoy and learn from when others tweet away at conferences I can’t attend.

The Council for American Studies Education is an impressive organization, and the Chicago History Museum is an excellent facility for hosting a program like this.

Oh! I almost forgot! As I wandered through the museum’s exhibits, I also saw the bed where Abraham Lincoln died, which is surprisingly small. My other favorite display was the baseball and bat from Gabby Hartnett’s 1938 Homer in the Gloamin’ at Wrigley Field.

Thanks to everybody who worked so hard to provide this dynamic, enriching professional development experience for those in attendance today.

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One Response to Today’s CASE Conference: What Does It Mean to Be an American?

  1. That bed is surprisingly small! Interesting comment about the persona in the performer–I can see how students would see that as inauthentic. I see it as skilled in language register or audience/purpose. I did love the film, but then again, I’m a slam team coach. Thanks for sharing your post!


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