Teaching with HBO's John Adams
When teaching the American History to 1865 survey course, we cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time. I teach for 85 minutes twice a week and with breaks, weather and holidays end up with 30 class periods on average. I have roughly 45 hours of instruction time to teach American History from the time the Native Americans arrived in North America to the end of the Civil War. As I have written before, time is my most precious commodity in this course.
The use of film in teaching history is quite useful. I teach a film course as well and one of the things my students learn is that film is a horrible medium to learn history from. Now wait a minute you say! Didn't I just say that the use of film in teaching history is quite useful? Yes, I did. It is useful to teach history with, but next to useless to learn history from. There is a major difference. One cannot learn history from film because the film is never completely accurate. No matter how meticulously the history is studied, it comes in second, third or far distant place related to the story itself.
Unless one has a good knowledge of the time and events, the film will only be a flawed interpretation of the past. Learning from film means the student has learned an incorrect and flawed history. This is not what we want. Now, using the same film in conjunction with primary sources, and a guide to history can be quite useful. That is where an instructor can come in and use film to teach history. The students are learning from the instructor, not the film. The film has become a visual medium or platform for the instructor to use in teaching history.
That is what I do with John Adams. Some of the best teaching of history is really nothing more than telling stories and linking them together. However, no matter how good an instructor is they can only convey so much in words. Using visual references, instructors can expand upon what they are teaching and link images to elements of the themes. For the period of the American Revolution I find using HBO's miniseries John Adams quite helpful.
For one thing, the period setting with the clothes, the backgrounds, the hair styles, and character interactions present the people and events of the past to the students far better than words can. However, unless students know who the characters are, they will not make the connections between them. Case in point: Several scenes set in Philadelphia during the Second Continental Congress involve several key characters. John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Edward Rutledge, Caesar Rodney and other make appearances in many of these scenes along with others. Most of these men, Founding Fathers all, will not be known to the students nor will what their role was in the founding of the country.
These scenes have outstanding teachable moments. This semester I showed the scenes. In some, John Dickinson is of course doing what he can to block everything that would lead to a break with Great Britain. Why he does this will not be known to students unless they are told what and why Dickinson opposed independence. That is why learning from film will not suffice. However, when students are asking who this guy is, you have a teaching opportunity thanks to the film. At that point the students are receptive and ready to learn. Anyone who has taught the survey courses knows that is a golden opportunity that does not exist very often.
Every time I've shown the scenes the class is asking who these men are. I strike while the iron is hot. I select my scenes with care. I know who the people are in them and I am prepared to answer questions. I even link the scenes to the lesson plans so students reinforce their learning. The miniseries is full of teachable scenes. I use several for the Federalist era. I use a few to explain the letters between Adams and Jefferson. The visual references help students associate what they learn in their memory.
Unfortunately, I do not have the time to show the entire miniseries. Therefore I have to select the scenes that enhance learning opportunities. This works not only for using John Adams, but any other film or documentary in the class. Student learning needs to be varied so they have a good diverse course dedicated to that function. Film is what I call a useful tool in the instructor arsenal. Just like any tool, its use must fit the right opportunity and the user of the tool needs to know how to use it. Showing students scenes without providing reference and context is a waste of valuable teaching time.
I use a flipped classroom and have students watch clips of lectures, film, and documentaries for every lesson. However, I also provide context and reference for them. Then, we take what they saw and explain it in the class. I find this helps students who are more visually learning oriented while the other medium in the lesson plan helps students with their learning orientations. This is a variant of differentiated learning in which different methods are employed to convey information.
John Adams is loaded with teaching opportunities that fit this teaching method. I highly recommend using it. Many scenes are on YouTube, but I suggest having your own copy of the show or make a DVD of the scenes you want to use in class. It will be smoother than hunting for them. In any event, use them. Not only them, but use other film as well. Break the monotony and put some life in the lessons. In many ways, this can set up lecture and even homework assignments. I have one of the essays built around the Declaration and point the students to it via the show. In any event, use the series and teach with it. It is outstanding for that purpose.