Connecticut History on the Web

Teacher Guides to Units

A General Introduction for the Teacher

The Pequot War

Connecticut Colony and the Empire

The Ratification of the Constitution in Connecticut

Dissenters and the Standing Order: The Fight for Religious Toleration in Connecticut

Water Wheels and Steam Engines I: Shops Along the Brook

Water Wheels and Steam Engines II: Visions of Change

The Woman Question

Newcomers to the Land of Steady Habits

Connecticut Progressives

The Promised Land

A World Apart: Connecticut's African Americans, 1900-1970


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A General Introduction for the Teacher

by Mark Williams


When I first created Connecticut Case Studies in 1989, the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company printed 1000 copies of each of the ten original units. These packets were distributed to teachers during the 1990s by the Connecticut Humanities Council, and through various workshops which I ran. Because they are now nearly all gone, the Humanities Council has decided to fund the development of this web site in order to continue to make the materials, and additional units, available to teachers.

Connecticut Case Studies and the additional units at this site comprise a series of self-contained units of instructional materials designed for use by high school students and their teachers. The goal, in the creation of these materials, was to provide teachers of American History courses with engaging local history resources to integrate periodically into their survey. This introduction to both the rationale behind the series and the format of the units is part of each packet. Teachers who plan to use Connecticut Case Studies should read these preliminary remarks before planning lessons and strategies, because getting the most out of the materials depends, to a great extent, on familiarization with the assumptions and goals on which they were based.

The Problem of What to Teach

A great deal has been written about what ought to be taught in schools, and the past five years in particular have seen a flood of curriculum-related monographs and reports. While there is a wide variety of opinion, there does seem to be a common thread of concern about the lack of basic skills among young people in America today, and about the confusion over defining what information can be considered fundamental. What books should every student read? What problems should every student know how to solve? What dates and names should everyone remember? Is there an identifiable "common core" that education should seek to cover?

We are, indeed, in a quandary in education today, for not only have curriculum changes over the years stressed some goals at the expense of other perfectly acceptable ones, - not only has the rate of curriculum change been too rapid for the "reformers" to perfect new techniques and materials, - but also the various literature on what to teach has heightened our awareness that there are so many equally valuable and necessary teaching objectives that it sometimes seems young people could never be adequately prepared for life, or even college, in twelve years of schooling. Where the subject of history is concerned, this is no less true than anywhere else.

In History

Researchers in the late sixties and early seventies, highly skeptical that students would remember much of what they memorized in their history courses, pointed to a whole series of cognitive skills and values considerations as being more appropriate objectives for high school teachers. At the same time, concerns were being raised about the treatment accorded minority and ethnic groups, and the lack of attention given women's issues in history courses. "New Left" scholars, local historians and advocates of the "new social history" also added to the list of objectives. More recently, the pendulum has swung back in the direction of memorization, as reflected in changes in textbook format and content. One group of historians presented a report in which they claimed that a sizable percentage of American high school students could not place the Civil War in the correct half century, or recognize the name of Henry David Thoreau. They blamed overemphasis on skills at the expense of basic information, and noted, correctly, that skills could not be taught very well in a vacuum anyway.

The issues seem to be, what information should be taught when there is clearly more information worth knowing than can ever be crammed into a one-year text, and how can we avoid losing sight of important skills and values goals? Furthermore, one issue that seems to be receiving less and less attention, in all this concern about what should be taught, is the problem of actually getting students interested in the subject in the first place. Not only are skills and content inseparable, but both rely upon motivation. For the teacher aware of this need, the problems become compounded. It seems the more one does to motivate students, the less time there is left over to teach them, and heaven knows today's young people need a lot more motivation to study history than ever before.

The answer to all these problems lies in developing materials and activities which are multi-purposed - that is, that can accomplish more than one thing at a time. They should engage students' imaginations and interest, get them to think, provide intriguing problems, raise some moral as well as historical issues, and provide students with some basic information that they will remember and find meaningful now and in the future.

There is, actually, an approach to teaching American history in high school which can achieve these various purposes. The approach has to do with the concept of "introduction." Instead of focusing on "coverage" of a large body of information, or setting a goal of "a basic understanding of our heritage," teachers would be better off seeing their role as fostering lifetime learning by making students' early experience with history as intriguing, as inspiring, as exciting, and as puzzling as possible. The idea is to whet the appetite, to provide just enough information to make the student "literate," to build just enough inquiry skill so that the student has a fundamental habitual approach to thinking about the past, to ask just the right questions to make a student "wonder." At all costs, the teacher must avoid killing innate curiosity, or stifling creativity and imagination. With the right introduction a student will be inspired and trained to be a lifetime learner of history. This lifetime learner will be more likely to choose to take another history course in the future, or to read a historical article or book; and with growth and learning, one day, "a basic understanding of our heritage" may come.

How Local History Fits In

There are many things that can be done in an American history course to meet the above criteria for success (that is, to inspire and train lifetime learners). One of these strategies involves the use of local history. Teaching Connecticut history and government in high school used to be mandated by state law, as though the subject were some necessary evil that no one would have anything to do with except when required. In actuality, when handled properly, local history can engage students' imaginations and heighten their curiosity in ways other topics cannot.

There are probably a couple of reasons for this. First, it's always good to be able to say, "It happened right here." One can look out over a field and imagine farmers in colonial garb struggling with the land to make a settlement work, or glance at the blue dome next to I-91 in South Hartford and feel closer to a somewhat eccentric and wildly successful industrialist. Secondly, there's something about exploring the unknown that appeals to everyone, and where Connecticut history is concerned, a great deal of it is unknown. Much of that which has been discovered does not appear in a standard American history text, anyway, and so, students can feel as though they are on to something new and different. With these motivating factors at work, it's hard for a teacher to pass up using local history, as long as there are good materials available.

When studying the early period of contact between settlers and native Americans, it is just as appropriate, and probably more engaging, to have students look into the Pequot War, as it would be to study the relations with Powhatten or the Iroquois. Investigating Connecticut's rich constitutional tradition can be similarly enlightening and stimulating, when studying the forces behind the Revolution; and rather than discussing Patrick Henry and James Madison's differing views on centralization of power, why not bring the whole issue home with a debate between Oliver Ellsworth and James Wadsworth, who essentially said the same things. Thus, using local history materials can provide the motivation, develop the issues, and teach the skills all at once; and the ability to integrate these materials in place of others means that an already full agenda will not be stretched further.

Pedagogical Premises

A few guidelines need to be offered regarding what seems to work with students and what seems worthwhile. First, the same rules that seem to be emerging about content in U.S.History apply to local history; that is, straight political chronology is inappropriate, for it leaves out the vast majority of people in our past. Attention must be paid to social and economic history, gender, racial, and ethnic issues, and certainly, where Connecticut is concerned, religious and philosophical developments are important to touch on. Secondly, a teacher needs to avoid "covering" the subject, that is, trying to make students masters of Connecticut's past. This will probably seem self-evident to anyone at all familiar with Connecticut history, since historians in our state readily admit, themselves, that there are a lot of connections yet to be made. Finally, topics and issues selected need a good tie-in with issues at the national level, even if local developments make the case of Connecticut somewhat exceptional. In many cases Connecticut provides a good example, at close range, of trends in American history, and in just as many cases Connecticut demonstrates the diversity of our national experience.

In terms of what works best with adolescents, a teacher needs to keep a few basic things in mind. Active learning (that is, learning in which the student is a seeker, an inquirer, an imaginer, an hypothesizer, as opposed to a passive receptacle, a test taker, or a listener without a purpose) is the sort of learning that sticks. It takes longer for a student to develop and understand a generalization about history when the student is trying to "discover" it from scratch. Nevertheless, conclusions arrived at through self-directed exploration, or active use of imagination, are generally not conclusions that are forgotten during the succeeding summer. Furthermore, as "the method" of investigation and discovery becomes perfected, understanding can be achieved at a more rapid rate and at a more subtle level. Even if a textbook is used "to fill in the gaps," the reading becomes more meaningful to someone who has gone through the process of discovering at least some of the conclusions. Teenagers are at the right age to begin to develop abstract cognitive and imaginative skills, and can really begin to grow in those areas when challenged.

Another thing to keep in mind, where adolescents are concerned, is that there are a lot of ways to study history that can be fun. These can even include reading and research, when material is well-written or on a subject someone has a burning desire to explore. In fact, high school students are not necessarily averse to hard labor and drudgery, if they can see a reasonable purpose to it. The materials in the Connecticut Case Studies units are designed not only to be intriguing and fun, but also to offer intellectual challenge and opportunity for academic growth and achievement that young people can be proud of. There is some play, and some work, and it is hoped that no one will know where one leaves off and the other begins.

The Unit Design

Each unit of Connecticut Case Studies is self-contained and can be integrated into a course in American History without relying on exposure to material in units on earlier periods. A "Teacher's Guide" provides background information and context for the teacher, as well as appropriate objectives, suggested strategies, lesson plans and questions, and a list of additional resources on the subject. The rest of the packet contains documents, some of them facsimiles of the original sources, to give students a sense of what a historian must face, and student activity or role cards.

Included with the documents are some brief introductory background remarks and some suggested issues to consider in studying the documents. In an effort to give students the most "authentic" material possible (so they will have the sense that they are the historians) syntax, grammar and spelling have been left in their original form. For the same reason the background remarks have been kept to a minimum. The format of separate documents, as opposed to bound sets, was selected to convey the message that history involves the integration of scattered data from different sources.

Clearly, none of the units is a comprehensive treatment of the subject. Each was developed with full knowledge of the time constraints teachers of survey courses face when they seek to integrate new materials into an already full curriculum. In fact, teachers are encouraged to be selective about what materials they actually use from a packet, and the degree of depth with which they investigate the subject. Teachers who wish to do more with a particular subject should look into the additional resources suggested in the teacher guides.

Summing Up

The purpose of Connecticut Case Studies is not to provide a course in Connecticut history ("a thorough understanding"), but rather an introduction to it, and more importantly, a stimulating way to introduce American history to young people through use of local history. Each unit is separate and does not require use of the other units or even of all the materials of that unit. Thus the format allows for maximum flexibility for the teacher. Through investigation of original sources and acting out of role-play exercises, students can begin to build their own understanding of Connecticut and American history, and, at the same time, become generally more skilled and imaginative learners of history. It is hoped, that, as active explorers, they will become lifetime learners.


I wish to express my deepest appreciation to the following people for their assistance during my work on this project:

The Connecticut Humanities Council for providing a grant for the development of the units.

John Sutherland of Manchester Community College, Ronald Dufour of Cheshire Academy, Christopher Collier, Historian of the State of Connecticut and Thomas P. Weinland of the University of Connecticut for serving as consulting scholars and reviewing each unit.

Sandy Schmidt, Arthur Kiely, Christopher Bickford, and Everett Wilkie of the Connecticut Historical Society for their help in obtaining reproductions of documents.

Earl French, Dianna Royce and Suzanne Zack of the Stowe-Day Foundation for assistance in developing The Woman Question.

Daniel W. Gregg, the Social Studies Consultant for the State Department of Education, for advice and assistance on format and dissemination.

David Daley of the Class of 1988 at The Loomis Chaffee School for his help in finding and choosing documents.

John Ratté, Headmaster of The Loomis Chaffee School, for providing work facilities, supplies and moral support; and Dale Clayton, the school's Audio-Visual Director, for assistance in production of the materials.

Carol Laun, Curator of the Salmon Brook Historical Society of Granby, for allowing me the use of materials in the Society's archival collections.

Tracey Wilson of Conard High School in West Hartford for serving as special consultant on The Woman Question.

Robert K. Andrian of The Loomis Chaffee School for serving as special consultant on Connecticut Progressives and Water Wheels and Steam Engines, Part II.

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