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Eli Whitney. You’ve all heard of him. You know, he’s that guy that indirectly led to an increase in slavery and all of that horrible stuff. He was just trying to help make life easier (and make a little cash in the process), but his ideas made a HUGE impact on America.
I taught a lesson on Eli Whitney this week. In my opinion, you need to make sure your students know 2 things about Eli Whitney:
1- He invented the cotton gin
2- He came up with the idea of using interchangeable parts in manufacturing
It can be hard to visualize how the cotton gin works without seeing one (or at least a diagram of one). I found the BEST video I have ever seen showing the operation of a cotton gin. Now granted, this video is in black and white and is probably older than me, but there is no better video that I have found which has clear shots of the teeth in the wheels. When you show this to your students, just let them know ahead of time that it is an older black and white video and that there is a cheesy guy in a wig pretending to be Eli Whitney.
(Side note: I have often found that students tend to dismiss something they see as old or in black and white IF they haven’t been prepped for it. Before I show an older video, I always explain that the video explains or illustrates something so much better than other videos that it still has relevance and is worth showing. Once I acknowledge any obviously cheesy moments or outdated phrases or clothing, it takes away much of the novelty of it, and the students can move past it and just absorb what the video is showing.)
Another “decent” video (although NOT the History Channel’s best production) is this one. You may want to use this in between your discussion of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts.
Now, here’s what I’m REALLY proud of! I decided that I wanted to have my students make some kind of crafty-type thing to help them remember how the cotton gin worked. So I enlarged and printed the picture below on cardstock (you could use regular paper too if you had to).
I then gave my students some glue, cotton balls, and unpopped popcorn kernels (to represent cotton seeds). They had to glue the stuff on the diagram in such a way as to represent what the cotton gin did. Use liquid glue if you do this. None of this will stick if you use a glue stick. Also, tell your students to tear apart the cotton balls into smaller chunks. The balls will last longer, and it just looks better.
Now, this will seriously take less than 5 minutes, so why should you do it? Because sometimes your students need to do something hands-on. Because sometimes your students need to do something other than take notes. Because sometimes you need to do something different. And if you think this craft may be too “childish” for your kids, I think you underestimate how refreshing a change of pace is when you are sitting in class and listening to people talk all day long. Did I mention that it would be GREAT reinforcement for tactile learners…or really anyone?
If this idea is too simple for your “high-minded classroom ways,” (haha) try this: Divide your students into small groups and give them a poster board, cotton balls, popcorn, and glue and say…”Make me a diagram of a cotton gin.” or “Make a poster demonstrating how a cotton gin works.”
Before you get your students pasting and crafting, you need to reinforce the impact of the cotton gin. It is pointless for your students to know how the cotton gin works if they don’t know the impact it had on the South (and really the world). I used a table to show the students the difference the cotton gin made. Have them cut out each box and put it in the correct spot in the chart. (See link at the bottom of the article.)
One thing that you need to discuss when covering the effects of the cotton gin is the positive and negative effects of the invention. Have a brief discussion about the good and bad that has resulted from various inventions (start off discussing the cell phone). Have students do some deep thinking about consequences and cause and effect (maybe a short free-write). Many people talk about the fact that the cotton gin led to an increase in slavery but often overlook the fact that the cotton gin also provided a way for poor farmers living in the South (who didn’t own slaves) to better support their family. Also, cotton provided the raw materials necessary for textile mills to expand which provided more jobs.
Once you cover the cotton gin and move on to interchangeable parts, there’s more fun stuff to do. After explaining interchangeable parts and their importance, may sure you show them that they are surrounded by hundreds of examples of them. You can use your board markers as a handy example. If you lose the top to one, you can replace it with another.
Have your students go on a scavenger hunt around the room for examples of interchangeable parts. You can divide them into groups and have them race. Whoever gets done first is the winner and gets candy or extra points on a quiz. I would make them find about 30 different examples within the classroom. Or, you could also set a timer and see which group can come up with the most examples of items with interchangeable parts in the time allotted. Pretty much anything with a screw has interchangeable parts. In fact, a screw is an interchangeable part! Students are probably wearing examples of items with interchangeable parts as well: watches, zippers, buttons, earrings, etc.
A word of warning, apparently there is a theory out there called the Mandela effect, where a group of people collectively remembers something wrong. There’s a bunch of articles devoted to this. Well, some crazy people claim that Eli Whitney was black and that he invented the cotton gin to reduce the work of slaves. It’s a crazy Internet theory with no reliable evidence, but there’s always that ONE kid in class who’s read stuff like that and brings it up. Haha! The point is, the cotton gin changed the course of American history, regardless of the physical characteristics of the inventor!
Here’s a link to my cotton gin table. It’s pretty simple. You can add more stuff to it if you would like (specific statistics about cotton production and slavery). The fonts may look weird if you don’t have them on your computer.
Featured image courtesy of Dsdugan – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58026846
Once again, history references show up in popular culture. Put the picture to the right on your board at the start of class the day after you talk about the 1849 Gold Rush, and see if you can get a laugh out of your students. (It’s also a reference to the Kanye West song Gold Digger. Don’t ask me how I know that…I’m not even sure myself.)
While we are on the topic of the Gold Rush, I thought I’d mention this. This letter is an interesting primary source about the California Gold Rush written by a gold miner in 1850.
Read it and highlight portions to read aloud to your students (make them do Window Notes to encourage active listening).
Copy and paste the best portions for your students to read. Have students write a reflection about whether they would have enjoyed participating in the Gold Rush based on what they read in the letter.
If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, read a summary of the best parts of the letter here. (Scroll down to “Getting the Gold” for most relevant material.)
Did you know that I could once name and locate all of the countries in Africa? How many people can say that? (Well, you might be able to if you teach Geography, but even most social studies teachers don’t know them unless they end up teaching a geography class.) How did I do that? It was quite simple. I had a really good college professor that loved geography and made African geography interesting. One of the most helpful and yet simple activities we did in class was to color and label a map of Africa. Yes, we colored…in college…and it worked. I know that adult coloring is all the rage right now, but when I was in college most people would have looked down on a professor that resorted to coloring to teach a college class. I have a very distinct memory of myself sitting in class at Clemson University coloring maps and LOVING it! It seemed simple, but coloring maps appealed to various learning styles of the students in the classroom and enforced the content multiple ways.
So, what does that have to do with US History? Oftentimes, we talk about land acquisitions without ever showing students a map of the result of said acquisition. Yes, the Louisiana Purchase made a HUGE impact on the size and natural resources of the US; but you don’t really get an idea of just how huge it was until you show it on a map. Did you remember the size of the Louisiana Purchase from your high school classes? Probably not. But how many maps were you shown? How many did you color and label? Probably none.
You get my point. Give your students blank maps and have them color and label important historical events, acquisitions, or information. Don’t think you have time? Some maps will only take 5 minutes to complete. You can always set a time limit and whatever the students don’t finish in class must be completed for homework. Some maps, such as a map showing land acquisitions of the US, would serve as excellent end of course review material! See some examples of assignments below:
American Colonies Map – Use the map found here. Have students create a map of the 13 colonies. Students must label each colony and color the three main colony divisions: northern, southern, and middle colonies (or mid-Atlantic). Students must also insert symbols for economic activities and religious groups. Students must create a legend to go with their map.
Civil War Map – Use the map found here and tell your students to create a map depicting Union and Confederacy states and capitals. You can also have students label Fort Sumter, important battles, or other items (the Mississippi River). Explain the anaconda plan and have students label elements of the plan on their map.
Western Trails Map – Use the map found here. Have students trace and label the route that they would take to go west. They must label cities in which they would start and finish. On the back, you can have students explain which route they chose and why.
Land Acquisition Map – Use the map found here. Have students label and color all of the major US land acquisitions. Have them include the year we got each piece and who we got each piece from.
I actually found two products on Teachers Pay Teachers that give you almost all the maps you might want for US History. There are two different packages based on time period. Each is $9.95. Click here and here to learn more. If $20 seems a little steep to you, just Google a map you want and you should be able to pull it up. You may have to do a little copying, pasting, and resizing, but only once per map. Save it and use it again and again. The return on time invested will be worth it.
I found this 10 question quiz about women’s suffrage that I thought would be an interesting way to start class the day you cover the Women’s Suffrage Movement or the 19th amendment. See how much your students know before you discuss women’s suffrage!