Teaching the ALBA curriculum: The Spanish Civil War in AP European history

March 21, 2014
Tracy Blake (Photo Quincy Blake)

Tracy Blake (Photo Quincy Blake)

Tracy Blake teaches Social Studies at Olmsted Falls High School in northeastern Ohio. Born and raised in Oregon, he has been in the classroom for more than 20 years. He has participated in two ALBA teacher institutes and is one of the co-authors of ALBA’s Social Studies lesson plans available on the newly launched website for teachers (resources.alba-valb.org). For the past five years, Tracy has dedicated a yearly three-day Spanish Civil War unit to his AP European History class.

Why include the Spanish Civil War? What do your students get out of it?

One of the great things about the topic is its sheer complexity. It is a great lesson about that fact that in life there often are no easy ways to categorize things, to take sides, or to identify good and bad. The Spanish Civil War is not as clear-cut as World War II. People supporting the Republic did so from a wide range of positions. The fact that some of them were Communists, for example, complicates things from a U.S. perspective. On the other side, the Nationalists supported a status quo that we as Americans would not necessarily appreciate. But then you look at the position of the Catholic Church—and there are a lot of Catholics in my classes—and at the fact that American Catholics reacted to the war in Spain in many different ways. In other words, there are no easy answers.

The other great thing about teaching the Spanish Civil War in a European history class is its incredible wealth of documents. You have these wonderful images, for instance. Think about the basics of teaching young people: high-energy, high-power high school students respond differently to different presentations. Some students really engage with the propaganda posters, while others get more out of the letters. It’s a great way to get all kinds of learners involved. My students in the AP class are also expected to read primary documents very carefully, spotting subtle differences. This is exactly what the Spanish Civil War materials allow for. It’s one thing for a U.S. volunteer to write to his mother and another to write to his girlfriend. Analyzing the different ways that one person speaks to different audiences on the same topic allows students to speculate about that volunteer’s deeper reasons for supporting the Spanish Republic.

Ohio, like most states in the country, is adopting the Common Core State Standards. How has that affected your life as a teacher?

For me personally the jury is still out whether the Common Core is going to be a good thing. I like the effort to focus less on memorization of facts and more on writing and reading. There are no Common Core Standards for social studies, by the way, but the English Language Arts standards can be a part of teaching students to become more critical thinkers. The Spanish Civil War plays really well in that area. As a topic, it allows me to reach my objectives.

That said, I’m never happy with top-down mandates. We teachers take our job really seriously. I hate to be arrogant about it, but I think I know better how and what to teach my students than the people writing the standards. Most aggravating about the Common Core is that the tests are written not to measure how well the students are doing, but how well we teachers are doing. It’s not at all clear that the tests actually measure that in any accurate way—I see lawsuits waiting to happen. But regardless it still forces us to teach to the test. We often feel that the people writing the standards don’t understand what we do. We are a high-performing district but ironically the standards make it harder for us to teach well. That causes a great deal of frustration.

Tell me about your experience in the ALBA institutes.

A lot of the professional development activities that public-school teachers are asked—or rather told—to attend focus on how to deliver information. Most of that is very dry and uninteresting. ALBA institutes, on the other hand, are great because they put the content first. Social Studies teachers love their craft, and they love it for the subject matter. It’s an absolute pleasure at the ALBA institutes to be ensconced in all this wonderful content, much of which we have never really seen before—or even heard of. It’s a brand new world to dive into. For me personally, the ALBA institutes have been a great motivator, giving me new energy and ideas to bring to the classroom.

What were your biggest challenges when writing the lesson plans for the ALBA website?

We started from the premise—and I do believe in this—that if we are going to create a broad appeal for the Spanish Civil War in Social Studies we are going to have to use the standards. Teachers simply cannot afford to ignore them. So I felt it would be in everyone’s best interest if I worked hard to align all the lessons I wrote with the standards. The challenge was not only to find documents that would be interesting to both teachers and students, but also ones that would allow the teacher to justify their use. In the end, everything we teach has to follow the standards.

The other big challenge was to match different sources together under common themes. Of course the themes we have are marvelous: how people deal with conflict, how they respond to diversity, how they deal with age-old problems like racism and sexism. But it was not always easy to flesh those out from primary sources in ways that teachers would find useful. I spent a lot of time trying to find good hooks, too. Teachers want to be brought in quickly. We don’t have a lot of time.

Tracy’s lesson plans can be found at http://resources.alba-valb.org/subject-area-page-social-studies/

Sebastiaan Faber is chair of ALBA’s board.