Living History

Gaining new perspectives and going new places in a time of isolation

About this time last year my wife and I dragged our tired kids from their naps, got them changed, and packed the car. We put in water bottles, enough snacks for a weekend backpacking trip, and cozy hats, gloves, and scarves. A short 20 minute drive later (full of music from Amy Grant’s incredible 90s Christmas album) we arrived at the Portland Zoo for their annual Zoo lights. It was a noisy affair, jostling and bumping into strangers as we waded through the crowds to find the next display. We sat in the old train as it drove through the zoo, all the while my son spilled hot cocoa on his jacket because he couldn’t keep his eyes off the lights.

Looking back, this all feels very odd. Crowds. People. Noise. No masks to be seen, except those used to keep faces warm. This year has taken much from us, and asked of us even more. Now a student teacher, I’ve seen first-hand the toll that distance learning has taken on students and parents alike. As teachers, what can we do to use our subjects not only as vehicles for learning, but also as ways for kids to experience wonder, excitement, and enjoyment of new things in a time when they are primarily stuck in home?

Make history come alive

Now we have a real chance to change hearts and minds when it comes to a subject that can often be dry and repetitive. History (and Social Studies) can be an escape from the ordinary, and an opportunity for adventure for students who are otherwise sitting in their living rooms. When airports are closed, hotels are dangerous, and travel is expensive, a history lesson can still transport students somewhere new. My hope through these activities is that students can still experience at least a little of what it would be like to really be somewhere…to be anywhere. Use history as a tool for learning and exploring…maybe even a short respite from the monotony of isolation. I’ve highlighted a few lessons here that I hope could do this.

The Lessons

Here I examine the exploration of the city of Barcelona through comparative images and maps. We used a picture compare to show side-by-side changes over time between old Barcelona and today. In this way I hope to not only give students a glimpse of the past and an opportunity to talk about change, but to also allow them to explore on their own. We are able to use these images to place ourselves in a space and time, to transport via our imaginations. The very process of examining the map can be an escape as well as an opportunity to critically think about what societies value and how they change over time.

The next lesson I’ve highlighted is a lesson I designed around using travelogues as primary sources. In it we examined excerpts from two travelogues written by Muslims as they journeyed in and around the Middle East, Indian Ocean, and India. The goal with this lesson is to critically evaluate how to use travelogues as primary sources by considering what kind of information is or is not reliable, and examining author intents. I feel like this lesson also allows for a lot of freedom from the teacher to let students get lost in the experiences of another. Learning empathy by better understanding another culture, as well as the simple idea of using your imagination to place yourself somewhere new…these are valuable skills that desperately need attention in these times.

While this was certainly a more personal type of post, the lesson itself was a great way to really lose yourself in another person’s experiences. We examined census data and maps to look at the real living situations and historical livelihoods of relatives, friends, or even complete strangers. This was a great way to learn about new places, and could be a personal journey for some students who may be cut off from their family during distance learning and a pandemic. I look for assignments to create experiences for others that not only teaches them, but also engages them emotionally.

Not for Disney: The many versions of John Smith’s Pocahontas

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Instruction Background

Instructional Goals:
The purpose of this series of lessons is to provide students with a deeper foundational knowledge of colonial American life, the life of Pocahontas, critical reading of primary source material, and writing a persuasive text.

Intended Grade and Background:
In theory this material will be taught midway through a larger unit on North American colonies. The intended grade would be late middle school or early high school (8th or 9th). Students should already have a clear idea of colonial powers in North America, the reasons for colonial settlements in North America, and be familiar with the role indigenous peoples played in the formation of those colonies. This material is intended to use the debate about the depiction of Pocahontas in John Smith’s accounts of his time in Jamestown as a way to bolster critical reading and thinking of primary source materials, and to practice writing persuasive text.

Essential Questions:
1. Why would John Smith’s account of Pocahontas change?
2. Which account of John Smith’s accounts is correct?

Instructional Materials

Let’s start with a map:
Start students off with a map of Virginia produced by John Smith and William Hole published in 1624, 7 years after the death of Pocahontas. Have students examine the map closely. What do they find? Hint: John Smith is still giving an account of Pocahontas in the upper left corner. Encourage students to ask and wonder why this would be included in a map.

Instructional Source: “Virginia”, by John Smith and William Hole, 1624

John Smith’s first account:
Students can read John Smith’s first telling of his meeting with Pocahontas in his book A New Relation, published in 1608, soon after he was elected president of the Jamestown colony council. In this first account, Smith speaks of dangerous encounters with the Powhatan tribe, but not of meeting Pocahontas until well after the initial meeting.

In this initial text, John Smith speaks of finally meeting Chief Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas nearly a month after encountering nearly 400 indigenous warriors near Jamestown. There is no mention of Pocahontas other than this and another passage that describes her interest in the colony.

Scaffolding question: How is this depiction of John Smith meeting Pocahontas different from what you already know of this meeting?

Instructional Source: A True Relation, by John Smith, 1608.

The letter:
Both John Smith and Pocahontas became rather famous back in England after an injury forced Smith to return. This letter appeared in his 1624 book “The Generall Historie of Virginia” and was supposedly sent to Queen Anne before Pocahontas was to be presented to the royal court. There are obvious problems that this is the only account of the letter, but it was also not uncommon at the time for memoirs to include communications with – or to – royalty, so it is not impossible that this letter was genuine.

In this passage, John Smith recounts another version of his original capture by the Powhatan tribe, but this time adds in a detail that Pocahontas “hazarded the beating out of her owne braines to save mine”, seemingly from thin air.

Scaffolding Questions:
What details have changed about Pocahontas in this letter compared to the last text? Why is Pocahontas suddenly involved in John Smith’s capture? What can the date and audience of this letter tell you about the letter’s purpose?

Instructional Source: “Letter to Queen Anne” in his “A General Historie of Virginia” by John Smith

A “Generall Historie” and specific details:
Years after Pocahontas’ death, both she and John Smith had become something of folk legends in England. John Smith published frequently, and was considered a “New World Expert” back in his home country. In 1624, 7 years after Pocahontas died, Smith published “A Generall Historie of Virgina, New England & the Summer Isles” which was meant to be both an account of the colony as well as Smith’s own exploits.

Suddenly Smith ramps it up a notch with this retelling of the now classic story. Going farther than the letter in this same book, Smith now suggests that Pocahontas “got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.” He later even states the Pocahontas saved him again, this time by foiling an assassination attempt by telling Smith ahead of time.

Scaffolding Questions:
What details have changed from the previous telling to this one? And what more from the first story? Why would Pocahontas save the life of this person she doesn’t know? Why would the story have changed?

Instructional Source: “The Generall Historie of Virginia”, by John Smith, 1624

Popular History:
This picture seems familiar, and for good reason. Printed in 1870, this lithograph from New York shows the now popular account of the meeting of John Smith and Pocahontas, with her saving him from certain death.

Scaffolding Questions:
Why do you think this is the version of events that – regardless of truth – is the most popular?

Instructional Source: Smith rescued by Pocahontas, Lithograph, 1870

Instructional Tools

Students will be using the primary sources mentioned above, along with a few other tools that could aid them in their exploration of this topic. Check out the slides below for a list of tools that could be used for this topic, and how.

  1. “Virginia” by John Smith, 1624
    • This is a great starting point to orient students in a time and place, and also gives them a teaser into what the controversy might be in later texts.
  2. “A True Relation” by John Smith, 1608
    • John Smith’s first account of meeting Pocahontas is a great way to talk about first impressions of their meeting and how it may have occurred.
  3. “Letter to Queen Anne” by John Smith, 1616 (1624)
    • Here is the first change in Smith’s story about Pocahontas. Students can now begin to compare the two accounts.
  4. “The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles” by John Smith, 1624
    • Students can now see the final depiction of the Pocahontas love story as given by Smith. Students will be able to make some inferences as to why the story changed.
  5. A clip from Disney’s “Pocahontas”
    • This clip shows the now dramatized version of Smith’s last account of Pocahontas saving his life. This is now the most commonly understood account of events.
  6. “Smith Saved by Pocahontas” Lithograph, 1870
    • This can be used to discuss how quickly the second retelling of Smith’s capture and rescue became the popular history. Students should be able to see the influence in future retellings of this same story.
  7. “Pocahontas Lives” website
    • This website explores two sides of a theory that suggests John Smith was indeed captured, but misunderstood an “adoption ceremony” by the Powhatan that lead to his believing he was in danger when indeed he was not.

Instructional Methods

Here I make some suggestions on how to present the materials and use the tools I’ve provided in the sections above. These are suggestions, as some timing and age range will dictate the exact method of instruction.

  1. Allow for pre-reading of “A True Relation” so that students will come prepared to class and ready to discuss the text. Perhaps show a clip from Disney’s “Pocahontas” as an introduction to the topic.
  2. Break students into small groups (3/4 depending on class size) to read “Letter to Queen Anne” and “The Generall Historie” texts, then allow students to share what they learned, and compare in real time the two separate accounts of Smith’s capture in the same published work.
  3. Walk students through the “Adoption Story” narrative on the “Pocahontas Lives” website. As you introduce this theory, point out that this theory presupposes the second versions of Pocahontas are the correct ones and that “A True Relation” simply leaves out Smith’s rescue.
    • Students can be split into two groups to review evidence for and against the “Adoption Story” narrative
    • Allow students to debate the narrative in their groups, giving students a chance to talk about evidence, what seemed persuasive, and point out how other historians have approached this topic
  4. Finally, give students a role-play opportunity by telling them they are to write the definitive version of this account in history. Their word will be final. They need to write a persuasive essay and in it answer these questions:
    • What is the definitive version of events?
    • Did John Smith really change his story? If so, why?
    • What evidence do you have to support your conclusion?

A Bohemian Rhapsody: The Life of a Good Man

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This is how it starts.

Staring out at a crowd of people in black suits, black dresses, brown suits, grey hair, and grey eyes. Before me is a podium, and on it is a piece of paper. My only job is to read this piece of paper. I take a breath, and begin.

“Thank you all again for being here. I’m going to try and get through this as best as I can. We’ll see how well that happens.”

I smirk and look down, letting the black suits know it’s okay to laugh. My hands are cold, and clammy. I like public speaking. I’ve been singing, playing the piano, teaching, and talking my whole life, but this is different.

“When Kay was pregnant with our daughter Claire, we had a baby shower for our whole family. Papa came, and he wrote a poem, of course.”

Another chuckle from the suits. They know his poetic hobby and his sometimes acerbic whit.

“This is what he wrote. It’s called In the Beginning….
Joseph and Mary begat…Kelvin
Kelvin and Meg begat…Tyler
Now Tyler and Kaylin are ‘begat-ing’
I asked God to


Crying. Of course. I wouldn’t make it. And I didn’t. I had one job at my grandfather’s funeral service. I would read the poem he wrote for my daughter. And I couldn’t get through it in any kind of intelligible way. You would have needed closed captioning.

We think about the dead differently here.

By “here” I mean America, and specifically WASP America. Of course Americans tend to honor our deceased, but at a reasonable distance. We seem to be unnerved by the fragile thoughts of our own mortality, by the fleeting moments we have here on Earth before we drift away. I think of this compared to other cultures where our ancestors are not pushed to dusty photo albums and family names. My grandpa Joe was Czech; stern but caring, a physicist by trade and an engineer by personality. But my grandpa Gil is Mexican. Through and through. He is emotional and kindhearted, creative and musical, and a teacher. I take after both, I’m happy to say.

When it comes to honoring our deceased family, however, I consider myself more of a Gil than a Joe. We built an ofrenda this year with our kids, painted papeles and escueletos, ate tamales and pan de muerto. And we told stories, and read poems about our family that came and left before us. And then I realized, I just didn’t know much about the family that came before me. That the only real family history-making was done when someone died, and you read where they grew up in an obituary.

So here we go. An opportunity to relive history, find out about my own roots, and remember my papa Joe in my own way, and hopefully in a way that means I’ll have more stories to tell my children, and theirs. Stories that I will start remembering about my own dad, mom, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Stories to tell while we’re still around.

My Grandpa Joe moved to Eastern Washington in 1948

He begin work with General Electric mapping and performing analysis on radiation dosing of plants, animals, and people living and working on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Before that, he lived in Denver, Colorado where he earned his degree in Chemical Engineering. But before that, he lived in Chicago. I know this because my dad told me, and a I still remember some short stories papa Joe would tell me, but they have faded.

Chicago was a Red-Lining town, with districts mapped out by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, or HOLC spread out in every direction but Lake Michigan. Joe was just 13 when the 1940 census was conducted, and lived with his dad Joseph, mom Anna, and sister Evelyn. His dad – my great-grandpa – was also born in Chicago, just north, and made an astonishing $4,200 a year as an insurance superintendent.

Image Source

But that’s not all I found. While researching the 1930 census, I found myself completely stymied looking for my relatives. There were certainly more Soldats than I anticipated, but none in Chicago. I did, however, find two WWII draft cards for my grandpa and his dad, living at the same address as was listed on the 1940 census.

I’m not great at math

But I was able to figure this one out. Papa was 18 when he filled out his draft card, and with a birthday of May 4, 1926 that meant it was…cary the one…1944. Just before he left for college. Neither my grandpa or great-grandpa Joe(s) were called into service, thankfully. And now I had more evidence of where they both lived, and when. So what was 3717 Raymond Ave in Brookfield like in 1940, and 1944? The maps from the HOLC provide some insight.

Images from Google Maps and Mapping Inequality.

My grandpa grew up smack-dab in the middle of what the HOLC referred to as C180, also known as “Portia Manor”. The population arrived primarily from the inner city of Chicago looking to escape the increasingly cramped housing of downtown for newer houses and easy access to transportation. The population was primarily comprised of 2nd and 3rd generation Continental Europeans, with “Bohemian” still considered a nationality. Most of these people, like my great-grandfather, worked white-collar jobs. Seeing now where my grandpa Joe grew up, I wanted to dig deeper, and look into where his father spent his youth.

Welcome to Little Ukraine

The twelfth United States Census was conducted in 1900. My grandpa Joe was not yet born, but his father, Joseph John Soldat, would have been about 3 years old. I knew my family from my grandpa’s side was…Eastern European? Czech, is usually what we said. “Doesn’t your name mean ‘soldier’ in German?” someone would ask. “Yes, and in literally every other language in Europe,” was the reply. But when I looked at the actual census data from 1900, I found something really fascinating.

1900 Census showing Joseph John Soldat

My great-grandfather was born in Illinois, right near a place now called “Ukrainian Village” on Google maps. A closer look at the census shows that his father Charles, my great-great-grandpa, lists “Bohemia” as his place of birth. Bohemia. A country that hasn’t existed since WWI, once the seat of the Habsburgs, and gateway into the West from Hungary. This is where they were from. And not just them. Nearly every single person on that page of the census listed “Bohemia” as either their place of birth or the place of birth of their parents. Once again I looked to the HOLC website for information on this area as of about 1935.

HOLC C155 is described as “a mediocre district of semi-congested character, steadily declining in general desirability.”. While the appearance of a Polish church is somewhat comforting to the HOLC, they conclude thusly. “The section is graded third class because of its age, obsolescence, and general appearance, and rated minus because of its mixed character and doubtful future.” Ouch. The area is predominantly Italian at this point, and it would possibly make sense that the Soldat family picked up shop and headed for the suburbs when new immigrants came into Chicago in the 1920s and 30s.

Let’s try this again

I’m feeling emotional, that’s the Mexican side of me coming out. I miss my papa Joe, and his bad jokes and good poems. I’m glad I know more about him now, about where he grew up, and where he came from. I’m glad I know about his dad, Joseph, and his dad, Charles. I’m glad I know about Bohemia. So let’s try this again, shall we?

In the Beginning
Joseph and Mary begat…Kelvin
Kelvin and Meg begat…Tyler
Now Tyler and Kaylin are ‘begat-ing’
I asked God to bless their home
He told me to write a poem
And so I did.
When I heard you were anticipating
I began eagerly awaiting
My very first great-grand child.
Now my emotions have gone wild
So here at this sitting
I feel it is fitting
That I say it right out loud,
I am very, very proud.

Joseph K Soldat, born May 4, 1926, died September 12, 2017

There. That’s much better. Thanks for the help, papa.

What if Amazon’s slow takeover of seemingly all business just…never happened?

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We like to all imagine ourselves as innovators. As people who, if given the perfect formula of inspiration and time, could come up with ideas that are not only impactful, but profitable. There’s the sort of “entrepreneurial spirit” that is drilled into most American’s at birth. Perhaps no better example of this is the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos. Not merely content to be the world’s foremost distributer of books you’re too embarrassed to buy publicly (I’m looking at you, 50 Shades of Grey), Bezos and his Amazon brand now own Whole Foods, the Washington Post, most of the Seattle skyline, and several key pieces of personal information thanks to their Ecco products.

But what if that just…never happened? What if Bezos was simply content to sell books, and realized he could continue to hone his craft doing what he was already doing really well. What would happen to Bezos? What would happen to Amazon? And what would happen to us?