Review by Matthew Crichton
Howard Zinn, who recently died, was a historian and author of the groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper, 2003). Zinn views historical events through the eyes of the ordinary people and focuses on their struggles against oppression, rather than from the perspective of leaders or conquerors. The Zinn Education Project (http://www.zinnedproject.org) is a new effort to influence the secondary school curriculum. The website offers historical documents and lesson ideas organized chronologically and thematically. It also includes lists of resources.
A companion to the website is A People’s History for the Classroom by Bill Bigelow (Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2008). Bigelow includes several projects for the United States history curriculum that look to correct how we teach certain topics including the discovery of America, the U.S. – Mexico War, the labor movement, the Vietnam War, desegregation of schools, and terrorism. Each topic features an in-depth project for students and includes a list of materials, handouts, time requirements, and suggested lesson procedure. It is very effectively presented and what might otherwise have been a complicated process is easy to follow.
Of particular interest for me as a middle school social studies teacher was the project for the U.S. – Mexico War. All students in a class are given a card with a different role to play and different views about the war. Many people were undecided about support for the war and some actively opposed it. As an end product, students complete a questionnaire using the information they collected from each other.
Another resource I found valuable was A Young People’s History of the United States edited by Rebecca Stepoff (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009). It is an adapted version of Zinn’s book designed for middle school students. The two-volume makes Zinn’s alternate take on the history available to younger readers. One of my students, who read a chapter on racism in the United States, said that the book “answered so many of the unasked questions.”
For teachers looking for primary source documents, I recommend Voices of a People’s History by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009). Many of the great songs, speeches, and documents Zinn used to write A People’s History are included here. Zinn and Arnove provide a brief introduction for each document. This book became the source for the History Channel’s production of The People Speak (www.history.com/content/people-speak). The website has video footage of Matt Damon reading and explaining the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Bratt reading a letter written by a runaway slave to his former master, Christina Kirk as Susan B. Anthony, Josh Brolin as Bartolemeo Vanzetti, and Jasmine Guy as Marianne Wright Edelman.