Raising New Questions: Reframing the Semiquincentennial with Resources for Educators
27 January 2022 – Alison Russell
Planning for the 250th anniversary (or Semiquincentennial) of the American Revolution, coming up in 2026, has already started for many historians and history institutions. The U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission announced that efforts to make this the most “comprehensive and inclusive celebration in our country’s history” began in 2020. The American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) released their field guide and the National Park Service (NPS) plan is forthcoming. While historians prepare, many K–12 educators remain unaware of this anniversary. The emphasis on grassroots commemorations may mean schools will not engage until activities are underway. Public historians should have flexible resources ready to meet educators’ needs for teaching the Semiquincentennial, strengthening the relationship between history institutions and classrooms. Rather than putting our effort toward new resources tailored to the commemoration alone, we should focus on reframing our existing resources to support teachers over the long term. The diversity of curricula across the country makes providing broad themes and questions essential for engaging teachers in the Semiquincentennial and beyond.
My recent work for NPS demonstrates an example of the type of tool—broad enough to accommodate varied classrooms while still tied to recognizable themes of the commemoration—public history organizations can offer educators for this anniversary. This summer, I helped design “Teaching the 250th with Historic Places,” a guide for teachers meant to highlight existing resources in the context of questions raised by the Semiquincentennial. The foundation of this guide, NPS’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP), is a digital project that hosts a rich collection of lesson plans. But the TwHP team knows our reach could be wider. The Semiquincentennial is an opportunity to conduct some of this outreach by pointing teachers toward lessons that can be used for this historical moment and then reused in future years. We hope that the new guide is a gateway to stronger engagement with our site.
“Teaching the 250th with Historic Places” is organized around four themes inspired by the American Revolution and its commemoration: Liberty, Equality, Belonging, and Memory. Accompanying each theme are questions to help frame students’ learning and employ critical thinking. The guide directs teachers to existing TwHP materials on topics throughout U.S. history, instead of new, commemoration-specific lessons. This models what I hope teachers will do in their classrooms: rather than wedge in the commemoration, unmoored from the rest of the curriculum, or completely overhaul their lesson plans, teachers can use the guide to show how studying the Revolution raises questions that apply to all of American history. Linking to existing resources will also encourage teachers to see TwHP as a flexible tool for lesson planning beyond the commemoration.
Employing questions as a framing device allows users to expand the scope of the commemoration temporally and geographically. Starting with the theme Liberty, for instance, we ask, “What does liberty mean to different people at different times?” The question comes from ideas expressed during the Revolutionary War. It is also one historians, especially of early America, ask themselves. But potential answers can stretch beyond the Revolutionary War. To help teachers and students think about this question, we included links to lesson plans on Frank McWhorter and women who served on Floyd Bennett Field Naval Base. These two lessons demonstrate different ways of defining and fighting for liberty. McWhorter, a formerly enslaved African American, worked to free himself and his family before founding Philadelphia, Ohio, for other self-emancipated people. McWhorter’s story uses place-based education to help anchor abstract concepts like liberty in the physical spaces people carved out for themselves. The Women Accepted for Volunteer Exceptional Service (WAVES) at Floyd Bennet Field fought for ideas of democracy in World War II as well as their own economic independence, contributing to the war effort in non-combatant roles while filling jobs that were previously open only to men. Liberty is a contested concept, historically and today, and these lessons frame this debate in different periods, tailored to various teachers’ curricula.
The questions in “Teaching the 250th with Historic Places” also incorporate diverse viewpoints and critical perspectives of history into classroom conversations. The guide probes the Revolution’s influence on the type of nation we are and whether we are living up to values articulated in founding rhetoric. The guide reframes sentiments such as “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence into questions like “How have Americans addressed inequalities at different points in our history?” One lesson under the Equality theme demonstrates an approach to this question by introducing Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, an ardent suffragist whose status as a Chinese immigrant made her ineligible to vote even after the 19th Amendment passed. Her struggle demonstrates the complexities in the fight to gain suffrage along gender and racial lines.
Despite recent pushback from some state legislatures, discussions of racial, gender, and class divisions help students better understand U.S. history and should be brought into the classroom. The delicate balance teachers navigate between addressing critical historical themes and following state guidelines can be addressed with more flexible and open resources from history institutions (“A ‘Roadmap’ for Teaching Civics and History is Coming”, 2019). Public history institutions offer updated scholarly practices. By directing teachers to resources that promote historical thinking skills, Semiquincentennial guides can support teachers of these materials throughout their academic year.
The Semiquincentennial, like the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, should be viewed as an opportunity for public history institutions to think creatively about how to expand critical conversations about history to the larger community (Marks, 2021). Teachers can be our allies. They facilitate discussions in the classroom and help frame students’ learning. We need to support these efforts with usable, relevant resources. While for some institutions that may mean creating new, commemoration-specific materials, the most important focus should be on providing critical, broad-ranging materials that ask bigger questions. These are the resources that are most useful to teachers in 2026. And these are the resources that will create a long-lasting relationship between teachers and public history institutions moving forward.
Alison Russell is a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studying culture and politics in the Early Republic. She taught middle and high school social studies for 10 years and, this past summer, she interned at NPS’s Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education. Twitter Handle: @MsRussellSays