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The following excerpt comes from “Why Won't You Just Tell Us the Answer?” Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12, by Bruce Lesh (Stenhouse Publishers, 2011). The book retails for $22 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.
This excerpt illustrates a model for teaching about historical continuity and change--students examine how the Pledge of Allegiance has been adapted over time. Read another excerpt from this book: From Ho-Hum History Lesson to Engaging Investigation.
The ability to understand that some concepts, ideas, beliefs, and other historical factors have remained constant, whereas others have changed, makes the historic landscape continuous rather than simply segmented into units to be momentarily learned and quickly forgotten.
The technique I use to establish the concept of continuity and change derives from an opportunity I had to work on a Teaching American History grant with Robert Rydell of Montana State University. During one of his presentations Bob discussed the evolution of the Pledge of Allegiance. As he moved through the metamorphosis of the words and the procedures for pledging to the flag, the famed lightbulb went off in my head: continuity and change over time! Since that day the development of the pledge has been the vehicle by which I introduce students to the ideas of continuity and change over time. There are of course limitless choices a classroom teacher could use to introduce this topic, but saying the pledge has been such a customary routine in the lives of my students that they simply assume it has been the same for time immemorial. The realization that this is not true creates a great deal of dissonance. The gap between what they thought they knew and the historical record enables me to cement in their minds the need to understand that the past and the present are vastly different landscapes.
A Brief History of the Pledge
Emerging in the 1870s, the Pledge of Allegiance, as written by Edward Bellamy, started as a poem to recognize the 400th anniversary of the expeditions of Christopher Columbus. When making the pledge, students were to stand and face the flag, place their hand on their heart, and then extend that hand outward—palm facing the flag—and recite the words: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and Justice for all.”
The 1920s saw the first major revisions to the pledge. Emerging from the Great War, the United States was plagued by domestic concerns about the influence of anarchists and Communists. This fear fed a generalized xenophobia about immigrants. Paralleling the legislative efforts to restrict immigration was an alteration to the pledge. Still performed with the Bellamy salute, the words were altered to reflect the changes in the purpose of pledging allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
A year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt pressured Congress to change the Bellamy Salute. During the 1930s, both Italian Fascists and the Nazi Party in Germany had adopted national salutes similar to the Bellamy flag salute. In an effort to differentiate American democracy from European fascism, the U.S. Congress altered the Flag Code. On December 22, 1942, the Bellamy salute was replaced with the right hand over the heart.
The 1950s provided us with the pledge that students have recited their entire school lives. In the depths of the Cold War, the phrase under God was added to the pledge to distinguish the United States, and its support for religious freedom, from the Soviet Union, where religion was officially banned by the state (Ellis 2007). Thus a simple function of my students’ daily routine becomes the platform for teaching about an important element of historical thinking—the concept of change and continuity over time.
The Pledge as a Teaching Tool
On the first day of school, as part of an introduction to the course, I ask students to stand and recite the pledge. They of course place their hands on their hearts and recite the words of the modern iteration. As soon as they divert from the original wording, I ask them why they have their hands on their hearts and why they said “the flag.” After several starts and stops in an attempt to complete this simple task, some frustrated but insightful student will blurt out something akin to “Has the pledge changed?” This query allows me to segue into my introduction to the concept of change and continuity over time.
To facilitate the introduction of change and continuity I display the three iterations of the pledge and ask students to identify the major differences. Identifying the changes to the wording as well as the shift away from the Bellamy salute leads to a brief discussion of why these changes might have occurred. Lacking any substantive knowledge of the 1920s or 1950s, students still generate thoughtful speculation about the reasons why the words changed. They immediately grasp the concept of change over time. Regardless of the time of year, a quick reminder about the pledge always reinvigorates student understanding of change and continuity. As we examine the reasons for the creation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the initial manner in which we saluted the flag, and finally the political climates that generated changes to the wording, students are drawn to the fact that although most things change, what is important in history is determining why these changes occur and what factors lead to some aspects of political, economic, and social life remaining constant.
Beyond applying an understanding of text, context, and subtext, the central disciplinary concept emphasized in this lesson is change and continuity over time. The concept can then be applied to other historical events. For example, student examination of the events and remembrance of the Battle of the Little Bighorn provides insight into why this event has remained a constant query among historians. In addition, the investigation allows students’ insight into how and why the telling of an event changes over time. What changes over time is not the event being examined. Instead, what changes is the interpretation of the event and what that event tells us about the relationship between the present and the past.
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