Teaching the American Revolution

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In my August 1st blog I reflected on the challenge of relating pre-twentieth century US history topics to today’s college students. In part I blame my past difficulties in this area on the fact that I’m personally more interested in 20th-century history. It’s easier for me to get excited about teaching topics that I have invested time researching. No doubt my depth of knowledge in those areas translates into a more passionate approach to teaching the subjects, which then generates greater enthusiasm from the students.

If only I could stick to teaching only those topics that interest me most, right?

The reality of teaching history at a community college is that I am one of two full-time professors of US history at my institution. Although his field of specialization is the 18th and 19th centuries, we both teach all facets of US history depending on the semester-by-semester needs of our department.

As I’ve been thinking about this coming semester, and the challenge of teaching two sections of US History I, I’ve turned to the web for some new ideas and inspiration on the topic I find most difficult to teach: the American Revolution. This week’s blog will share some of what I’ve  found as I searched the web for alternative strategies.

In previous iterations of US History I, my approach to the American Revolution has been largely narrative and chronological. In retrospect I can’t blame the students for finding this method less than exciting. This time around, therefore, I’ve decided to have the students complete an introductory reading on the entire period cumulatively, and then I will focus the lecture/discussion on a few specific areas: documents/artifacts, economic boycotting, and African Americans during the War.

My students will use their textbook, Understanding the American Promise (Macmillan), to introduce the general concepts and chronology of the period. Students in my survey courses read textbook chapters in preparation for class and take an online quiz ahead of our class meeting using LaunchPad  (Macmillan).

In addition to textbook reading this semester I will also assign this new-to-me interactive timeline developed by the Museum of the American Revolution. Since my first area of study will be documents and artifacts, the timeline will not only reinforce the chronology of the war years but also supplement the textbook reading with additional visual evidence of the period. In particular, I want the students to think about kinds of artifacts have been preserved -- weapons, powder horns, written documents, kitchen wares, even door handles -- as well as what is missing.

There are many websites that enable students to examine written documents from the era of the Revolution. In particular I like The Coming of the American Revolution 1774-1776 by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Since one of my goals is an in depth discussion of the economic issues surrounding the war, this site’s section on Non-Importation and Non-Consumption is particularly useful. In previous semesters my best class discussions relating to the Revolution have come from student interaction with the primary sources included on the MHS website, especially “An Address to the Ladies.”

The third area on which I want to focus is the lives of African Americans during the war. Of particular importance is helping students to understand the vast differences in experience faced by black Americans depending upon their legal status and their geographic location. Colonial Williamsburg hosts a website that addresses some of the challenges faced by slaves in the Revolutionary War era. See, for example, “Fighting … Maybe for Freedom but Probably Not” and Finding Slaves in Unexpected Places.   

I continue to search for resources on the northern slave experience during the war years. I’m hopeful that combing through the many online resources related to the history of New England during the war years will help me to broaden my students’ understanding of what it meant to be a slave in the North in this era. Suggestions welcome!


About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.