Editor’s note: This post was written by Carla Pacitti, a high school English teacher in Hagerstown, Maryland and the museum’s Summer Teacher Intern. Each year, we bring one teacher to work with our education team for the summer, to develop new activities and provide input on education projects and products in development. This post discusses an upcoming webcast for high school students, the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl. Register for the event.
Many of my colleagues found it surprising that I, as an English teacher, would choose to spend my summer at a history museum. Besides the fact that I am pursuing a master’s degree in American Studies, my interest in all things American history is incredibly useful in the classroom. Also, because the Common Core State Standards allow me to integrate more forms of informational texts into my classroom, I can continue to bridge the gap between disciplines.
One of the primary projects I worked with during my time at the Museum was the preparation for the National Youth Summit on the Dust Bowl. Following the success of last year’s National Youth Summit on the Freedom Rides, this year’s program will educate students about the environmental, economic, cultural, and social impact of the Dust Bowl, and prompt students to consider their responsibility to the environment. Students will use Ken Burns’s upcoming documentary The Dust Bowl as a springboard for discussion, and convene on October 17 via live webcast at locations across the country. Teachers can register and learn more here. Opportunities like this one allow teachers across the country to experience some of the resources the Museum has to offer without having to travel here.
When I’ve taught persuasive writing and basic rhetorical analysis in the past, I’ve typically chosen one high interest theme around which students can develop their topics. I try to find something prescient and not terribly over-utilized (last year, we studied food politics), and have my students research, discuss, and read as much as they can before they embark on their own persuasive speech or essay. It generally goes well if I select the right topic, because students have choice in what they want to use, but can also engage in a larger thematic dialogue with their classmates.
This year, however, I’ll be using the Dust Bowl as a springboard for the host of environmental issues that students may be interested in and want to write about, including the current drought. During my time at the Museum, I created a unit on persuasive rhetoric that allows students to analyze primary sources from the Dust Bowl era, one of a suite of resources available to help teachers prepare for the program. In this unit, students can draw parallels from past to present by comparing environmental issues. Through the reading and analysis of primary sources such as Caroline Henderson’s “Letters from the Dustbowl” and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famed Fireside Chats, students can gain insight into the hearts and minds of Americans during the Dust Bowl. They will study the arguments of others and identify rhetorical devices, and use many of those devices in their own writing. Through the National Youth Summit, they will also see the ravages of the Dust Bowl through renowned documentarian Ken Burns’s film, and will address some of the current environmental issues that are important to them.
All of this can serve to remind my students that writing, as I often tell them, does not happen in a vacuum. Writers are products of their era, of their environment, and of their personal thoughts, feelings, and goals. Spending my summer with the Museum has helped me to further understand this insight, and I hope that my students are able to achieve the same understanding.