Indecisiveness and the WPA – Forging Ahead in My DBQ Journey

This project was such a great opportunity to try my hand at creating the type of relevant history lesson that I want to include in my curriculum as a future social studies teacher. Unfortunately, I did not fully take advantage of it as I wish I had. Initially I struggled narrowing down a subject, I wanted to land on something I felt a strong personal connection to which would also be relatively simple to construct a DBQ project around. Quickly settling on the topic of communism and the Red Scare, I felt confident, perhaps a little too confident. When I realized that someone had focused on that topic last year for this project, I decided that topic would no longer work for me. I could have carried on with the communist angle and perhaps focused more specifically on one aspect of it such as the Ronsenbergs or the Cuban Missile Crisis, but my internal drive to be as close to original as possible forbid me from this. Instead I decided to switch gears entirely.

After debating various topics in my head from Civil War Reconstruction to the often forgotten historical figure of Noah Webster, of that dictionary we refer to from time to time (who I discovered in my preliminary research may have been a thoroughly unlikable fellow which is why his contributions to the founding of the USA have largely been forgotten…) but I digress. After bouncing around a variety of ideas after the Red Scare topic fell through, I finally settled on focusing my DBQ on the New Deal and the various forms of propaganda and art that came out of that time period in American life.

This period in history is complicated and filled with difficulties and political initiatives that mirror our own times to such a degree it is almost unsettling. Much as President Obama has needed to sell his ideas for recovery and change in the last six years such as the Affordable Care Act, so FDR needed to sell his plan for getting America out of the Great Depression. The poster collection created by the WPA and FAP between 1933-1943 is one of the first things I re-discovered when researching this topic.Forging Ahead They are beautiful, modern and striking. The have an agenda, often times more than one and they have much to tell us about what art can do to shift public opinion, and what those responsible for creating those posters believed needed to be shifting.

Once I settled on a topic my drudgery through this project was not alleviated. I did not have a focused point of view or purpose for the posters though I know I wanted to use them. Peter Pappas helped me collate my thoughts on what things could be asked of students in relation to the artwork and what conclusions or inferences could be drawn that might be helpful. My resulting DBQ project is not the best thing I have every produced, but it is definitely a place to start. As one of my favorite authors Elizabeth Gilbert has said “You must be very polite with yourself when you are leaning something new.”

If I could do it again I would get started much sooner, put my head down and find a topic I felt was original and interesting. I might have focused on maps or the layout of cities in America or something closely related to that. The good news is I hope to be at this for a while and I think the benefit of DBQ questions can not be understated, so I might just get me do-over shot after all. For now it’s about doing the best you can and learning that procrastination does not a stellar project make.

The Art of Fear Mongering – America and the Red Scare

Document Based Question Assignment:

This assignment was to choose a topic in history, around any time period or issue, and begin to construct a DBQ project around it. Given that the frame around the assignment was large, almost overwhelmingly so with possibility, our distinguished instructor gave us some pragmatic advice which I found helpful. His advice was to choose a topic that unites two key principles: a topic that is engaging, and a topic that has a profusion of useful and available forms of primary sources.

Keeping those two principles in mind, I began to rack my brain for the intersection where they meet for me. When I began to think about designing this lesson or unit for my current and future students of history, I start by thinking of today. What is going on around us now? What are we in the USA tweeting about and musing about around the water cooler right now? The first thing I thought of was the recent headlines and attention being paid to the Ebola crisis in Africa. Some Americans with access to a radio wave or television show microphone, have seemed intent on riling American’s fear on the topic. While others work to calm the fears of American’s and alleviate possibly unnecessary hysteria. That’s where my brain was when it found it, fear. The American propensity to be afraid. It isn’t a new condition or situation. The world is a scary place no doubt but it often seems to me, with our access to 24 hour news cycles and many hours to fill, fear has transformed itself into a new form on entertainment or viewership scheme. This idea of fear mongering in America caused me to look back in our history to other significant times where American’s were afraid. That is how I ended up at the Red Scare being the focus of my assignment.

Anti-Communist Propaganda
Anti-Communist Propaganda

I believe the Red Scare adequately fulfills the two principles of access to resources and level of engagement. It was a fascinating time of extremes. On one hand you have post-war America, often idolized today as a simpler time bathed in the golden glow of retrospect. While on the other hand it was a fiercely turbulent time in world politics and world history. There were poodle skirts and soda shops to be sure – but also the lingering fear everyone was going to get wiped off the face of the earth and communists were lurking behind every corner.

Key questions I will work to refine and develop for the unit:

  • What is fear mongering in America? What does it look like, does anyone profit from it?
  • Who and what spread the ideas of fear during the Red Scare?
  • Did Americans during the Red Scare and the Cold War have a legitimate reason to be afraid? Why or Why not?
  • Communism still exists in the world today. Why aren’t we raised to be afraid of it anymore? Has something else replaced it?


One concern I have as I craft this unit is that I work to maintain a focus and align my collected materials toward a central theme. There are many avenues one could take when providing primary documents to facilitate learning about the Red Scare and communism. I will endeavor to edit myself and the documents I choose, to make sure they align with the questions I am posing. I also think it would be great to track down some pro-communist propaganda of the time and do my best to weave in both sides of the anti and pro-communist narrative. We shall see how it evolves as I continue to explore the possibilities.

Words from War – A Primary Source Mini-Lesson


Arthurs Letters


The following two letters were written by soldiers deployed to war over twenty years apart. Letter A was composed in Belgium, Letter B in France.

Read the letters and determine which was written first. Then explain your answers using evidence from the text and your own knowledge of history.

Source text

Letter A:

I hardly know how to begin after such a long time and I really have been sweating it out. But speaking of sweating things out, in the past two weeks there was a few mornings that really called for a good deal of sweating out. It used to be fairly peaceful to lay in our foxholes but these particular mornings there was aplenty of big stuff falling nearby. I never was too scared of the stuff until then. We happened to be about eight miles inside of the Reich and the artillery was coming from all directions. Every Time a shell started to whistle in, I was beginning another prayer. As one of the ‘doughfeet’ put it. “I may not get the Purple Heart for being wounded but if they give them out for being scared as hell I certainly rate one.” and that’s no kidding’…

Carl Schluter

Source text

Letter B:

My Dear Mother,
Yrs. of Dec 27th & several enclosures to hand 3 days ago. I am glad you sent me poor Mowbrays card, I always think his death particularly sad, as he was on a pleasure round of the trenches & need never have gone at all. I suppose you will not go to Foxcote.

Here mild for time of year & cloudy, some rain & everlasting wind. I sincerely hope it will not freeze, so hard on the poor men in trenches standing in mud & water up to their waists, it would mean so many frozen feet; there was a lot of it first winter we were out.

I was moved again new years… We have little cubicles in a hut, made by hanging blankets on wires & at least we are on the surface tho’ in a sea of mud! This place is only 4 kil. from where I was. Cellar before used to get damp & water leaked through & down steps after heavy rain. We are6961369580_dea219e20f_k all off again very soon I hear, expected to be here 6 weeks. Shan’t regret it, but very glad to have seen it & the utter desolation of everything about the front.

My new years eve night & new years morning I spent in a dugout lying on a stretcher on floor with a wounded man on one over me, rats playing about all over, shells bursting all round & shaking the place, so it was not much to boast of; sort of shelling out the old year & in the new. Next morning 2 burst close to entrance & threw mud & stuff into the dugout just where we were sitting round the fire or stove rather. Following morning at about same hour one burst & knocked in all the entrance & one of our fellows was hit on head by debris, but none the worse much! It only left a little hole for them to get out through. Another morning a shell burst just across the road, hit car in several places & blew Dr., volunteer & 2 or 3 others standing at entrance right into the dugout down the steps. No harm beyond a shock….

Best love
Yr affect son

 Questions to answer:

Letter ____ was likely written first because

Letter ____ was likely written later because

Questions for further discussion:

Were there similar elements or details shared in each letter that made deciphering which came first particularly difficult?

What details would you have expected to find in a letter sent from the front lines of WWI vs. the front lines of WWII? Did you find any of these details in either letter?

Did the author’s use of language help you come to any conclusions about the time period or circumstance the letters were written in?

Letter B is addressed to presumably the author’s mother, but Letter A is not addressed to anyone. How might the authors intended recipient of the correspondence affect the details found within?

Reflection: Primary sources, what a treasure trove of possibility for the social studies classroom. Creating this lesson has further ignited my own desire to purposefully and prominentely utilize primary sources in my classroom in order to link students to the past in a very tangible way. Our exploration into the wonderful  resource of Beyond the Bubble has help re-illustrate for me that primary source work does not have to be dry or arduous for students, it can be exciting and meaningful with a little purpose behind itl. This mini-lesson was my entry into the shallow end of the process of shaping lessons around primary source documents. I hope it is my first such lesson of many.


Letter A
PBS Letters from the Front

Letter B
Battles of WWI & Arthur’s Letters

Photo Credits:
Image 1 – Arthur’s Letters
Image 2- Flickr Commons

Type of Assessment: Contextualization

Lesson Audience: 9th grade 20th Century Social Studies Class

Let’s Eat Grandpa – 7th Grade Introduction to the Importance of Grammatical Conventions


The lesson will take place within a unit that focuses on grammar and conventions in writing in order to meet 7th grade standards.


Opening/Warm-Up: Every morning the instructor in my classroom writes a ‘welcome note’ on the board. This lesson’s welcome note will be slightly different, it will be written without any capitalization or punctuation. The welcome note will include seating instructions and the also instruct the students to take out a sheet of paper and write the answer to the question, “What is the most commonly misspelled word in America and why do you think it is so often misspelled?”

After a short time they will be asked if they noticed anything confusing about the note. They will then be instructed to re-write the sentences in the note as individuals, making corrections to capitalization and punctuation if needed. The students sit in desk groups of four or five and after making their corrections the students will discuss their edits in their desk groups and come up with corrected sentences they all agree on. One student from each table group will then come up to the board and re-write the note with the edits the group has agreed upon. The instructor will then reveal the correct corrections to the class.

Introduction Lecture: Why is it important for us to understand the correct usage of grammar when writing? Each table group will have 5 minutes to come up with a one sentence response to this question. The class will then briefly discSomeecardsuss.

Spell Check Generation Prezi– The instructor will show slides illustrating examples from writing composed on a computer: grammatical mistakes on Facebook, typed resumes, etc., in order to prove wrong the notion that with computers helping us we don’t need to learn the rules. The presentation will also cover the basic lessons we will be focusing on. Capitalization, punctuation, sentence structure, parts of speech etc. With each slide the students will be encouraged to rate themselves on what they believe their level of competence is in each area 1 to 5. 1 being they feel they require a significant amount of instruction or clarification on the concept, to 5 being they feel very confident on their already formed knowledge base.

Another concept that will be addressed is the hard truth that much of understanding grammar is pure memorization. How do you know your name must always be capitalized? Because you have had to write it 5,000 times. By the 400th time you have probably realized you need to capitalize both your first and last names, right? What are some ideas the class has to facilitate memorization of the grammatical rules they may find difficult? Also the introduction of the idea that conventions are MORE than just rules. The are a foundation with which to base the expression of their ideas.


Students will be motivated going into the unit on conventions to appreciate their real world application, and to reflect on the areas they need to focus on while in the unit. Not all students are the same. We all have trouble with different areas, I want them to appreciate this from the beginning and begin to focus on those lessons in the unit where they need particular instruction.

Evaluation – At the end of the first lesson students will write in full sentences a brief exit self-reflection on their confidence with grammatical conventions. What common errors have they noticed themselves making: commas, title capitalization etc. How do they think the best way is for them to memorize the correct uses?

What kinds of thinking will students need to do to participate in the lesson?

Knowledge, comprehension, some analysis of their own tendencies.

To what extent do students have options or choices regarding these lesson components?

I am there to facilitate the introduction but I will want them to constantly be reflecting on their own experiences with grammatical conventions as I teach the introduction lesson and make suggestions on how best to link what they know about conventions to what they struggle to remember. The lesson’s overarching purpose is to motivate the students to understand the importance of learning grammatical conventions however dry it can seem sometimes, and to take responsibility for their own learning as we progress through the unit.

Personal Reflection

I have heard teachers say much of their lesson planning is facilitated by “working backwards”. From the concept or output they are hoping the students to master or achieve to the steps required in the lesson to arrive there. The planning of this lesson helped clarify for me, why that is a helpful process. To understand the route to take, first you must know where you are going. My upcoming work sample is going to be focused on grammatical conventions, a topic I find a little daunting for various reasons. How do I engage 7th graders and motivate them to want to learn and to be advocates for themselves? How do I keep it exciting? This lesson was my first attempt at understanding what shape that might take. I have a long way to go, but this exercise and the peer review that followed was very valuable to me.

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