Deepening Historical Understanding

Leon Fink and Robert Johnston

Leon Fink (left) and Robert Johnston.

During the month of July 2013, 30 K-12 teachers from across the country gathered on the UIC campus to attend a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded teacher training institute on the topic “Rethinking the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: Capitalism, Democracy and Progressivisms, 1877 to 1920.” The institute was developed by Robert D. Johnston, associate professor in the Department of History and director of the teaching of history program, in partnership with the Chicago Metro History Education Center and National Louis University.

Johnston served as academic director for the project, and also presented content for several of the 20 class sessions. History Professor Leon Fink presented a session on “Labor and Class Conflict in the Long Gilded Age” and Associate Professor of History Jeffrey Sklansky contributed his expertise to the unit on “Capitalism, Corporations and the Money Question.” Lisa Junkin, interim director at UIC’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, provided a tour of the museum and led a dialogue on immigration, while Peggy Glowacki of the UIC Daley Library hosted a session focusing on “Women and Progressive Reform in Chicago.”

Drawing on the expertise of scholars from several other institutions, the cohort studied the philosophies of John Dewey and William James and examined issues of gender, race, class, and conservation. They explored local Gilded Age and Progressive Era history through a tour of the Illinois Labor History Trail and visits to the Newberry Library and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House. They also learned how to present historical perspective and methodology to pre-college students. Participants read primary source materials, scholarly articles, and literary depictions of the era, including The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. They also screened films, including Iron-Jawed Angels, Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and Ragtime. Throughout the institute, participants developed teaching materials and presented final projects.

While exploring the “GAPE” time period, participants were asked to critically examine their view of history and its study, particularly the way in which our judgments are colored by our contemporary world views and how we make sense of the passage of time. The 30 classroom teachers came to the institute with a wide range of familiarity with the period under examination.

Nicole Parker English.

Nicole Parker English.

Alumna Nicole Parker English (MAT ‘04), who teaches humanities-history to freshmen and advanced-placement U.S. history to juniors at Evanston Township High School, had her first in-depth exposure to this rich period in American history at the summer institute. “The experience was phenomenal. I really enjoyed the discussions of primary texts and the opportunity to collaborate with other educators,” she said. “I was also delighted by the resources that are available in the Chicago area. I plan to take my classes to the UIC campus to visit Hull-House Museum and to point out the connections between Chicago history and the larger context of U.S. history.”

Laura Arrowsmith

Laura Arrowsmith.

Having studied the time period in graduate school, Laura Arrowsmith appreciated the new insights, themes, and resources provide by institute scholars. Arrowsmith, who teaches 11th grade and advanced-placement U.S. history at West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch, Calif., as well as a course at a local community college, commented that “this experience changed some significant elements of how I teach and what sources my students and I use.” She also said that her biggest surprise was how much she enjoyed Chicago. “I’m a suburbanite through and through, yet I really loved the city,” she said. 

Michael Munoz

Michael Muñoz.

Seventh-grade history teacher Michael Muñoz had also taken coursework on the era before traveling from Alexandria, Va. where he teaches at Francis C. Hammond Middle School, but he was still thrilled with the entire institute experience. He particularly liked visiting the Newberry Library and the UIC Library Special Collections to examine primary documents. “I gained a new appreciation of some of the difficulties my students might experience with primary texts,” he said, noting that he was exceptionally interested in Jacob Riis’s 1890 photographic study of New York tenement dwellers, How the Other Half Lives, and that he is using the images for a classroom activity. “Resources like the Hull-House maps and papers are exceptional primary sources that enable students to authentically look at the past,” he explained, and added that “when learning about the history of unions it was easy to make comparisons for my students between low-skill, low-wage jobs of the GAPE time period and today.” 

Charles Rosentel

Charles Rosentel.

“Teaching is often a balance between creativity and routine, and some days feel more routine than creative. The institute reinvigorated parts of my brain that had felt dormant,” said Charles Rosentel, who teaches ninth-grade composition at Pritzker College Prep in Chicago. This was his first in-depth look at the period and he particularly liked Jeff Helegson’s Labor Trail bus tour, which caused him to “consider the fallacy of taking our modern economy as inevitable” and question “America’s recurring faith in rugged individualism” by taking to heart Jeff Sklansky’s analysis that since the labor turmoil of the GAPE, our economy is “predicated on limited liability of each other’s welfare.” On the subject of immigration, Rosentel is now using primary documents for a class assignment in which students compare and contrast the GAPE with current eras and ask the question, “Must one assimilate in order to be an American?”

Photos by Matthew Kaplan