Thursday, November 6, 2014

John Adams: The Hero of Humanities, Unit Two

"It's Revolutionary-themed..." "It's entertaining." "The kids will like it because Heath Ledger is in it."  "Maybe it will make them interested in history."  These were but a few of the rationalizations that my student-teacher mind served up when I dedicated five days of class to showing my 11th graders at Unity Christian the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot during our unit on the American Revolution.   See, I knew it was bad history, and I knew that it wasn't really supporting the objectives I had in mind, but I showed it anyway because that was precisely how my own teachers (and even some professors) had used movies in class, and I did not know to do any differently.

That same fall, on the recommendation of a friend, I purchased the DVD set of HBO's John Adams miniseries.  I watched through the whole thing one Saturday and was captivated by the show.  Based on David McCullough's acclaimed biography of Adams, everything about the show was well-done: the writing was faithful to the Revolutionary patois, while at the same time making it accessible to modern ears; the performances were complex, and powerful enough for me to completely forget my general dislike of Paul Giamatti; the production value was high, and the costumes, sets and effective use of CGI made Colonial, Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America come to life.  I used a short clip in that same U.S. History class to illustrate the growing ideological divide between Adams and Jefferson.

Never once did it strike me as backward that I'd dedicated five days to showing The Patriot, but only five minutes to a clip from John Adams.

This year, I showed all but two episodes from the seven-episode series.  In the end, this came out to 5 days (and about 8 class periods total), no small allocation of time.  Yet, I wouldn't change a thing.  Our essential questions for this unit were:
1. What is worth fighting for?
2. What rights are humans entitled to?
3. What responsibility does a government have to its citizens?
4. How can words change hearts and minds?

John Adams touches on each of these questions in some way, from Adams' impassioned defense of British soldiers during the Boston Massacre trials, to his eventual decision to represent Massachusetts in the Continental Congress, to his hand in declaring independence, to the ongoing debate between him and Jefferson over the obligations of government to citizen.  What's more, each episode brought to life the people, places and events that I would bring up during lectures.  Today, in our unit reflection, I asked the students to identify something from the unit that they had found particularly meaningful or helpful.  Our simulation from several weeks ago was widely cited as a favorite learning activity, as was John Adams.  Here's what a few students had to say:


"I personally loved watching the videos about John Adams. They really helped me a lot and even helped me to understand the documents in DBQ."

"Watching the episodes of John Adams helped me learn much about the US History and how one should sacrifice to have government-associated jobs. I learned how to speak powerfully if I wanted to stand in front of a crowd and give a speech. What "clicked" for me is that John Adams was constantly unbiased and kept going towards his way. However, John Adams could have been more tolerant and patient to listen to others without raging upon them. By visually watching these, I can remember what I have seen and hopefully apply these to real life. Also, it was easy to understand what was going on in that era, rather than reading words on textbooks and trying to memorize them."

"The movie of John Adams helped me visualize what happened during that time, not only the facts and list of things that happened but the emotion, struggle, and drama behind historical events."

"I enjoyed watching the John Adams series, and it helped me see actual people talking about what we discussed with the notes."

"I think the TV series we watched made me realize that the "stories" about the beginning of America was real, and that the Americans were not heroes that fought for freedom, but were human."

"His relationship with his wife was my favorite part. I think we have an image that women were not treated well back then, but John Adams treated his wife as equal."


There's something that rings true about the miniseries in a way that would not happen with other media.  Historical movies often cling either to the extreme of painstaking tedium, or the other extreme of sensational unbelievability.  In other words, either the work is too dry to connect with, or too "Hollywood" to believe.  John Adams finds the happy medium.  The largest historical inaccuracies lie in the passage of time, as well as several particular changes in detail intended to build dramatic effect (for example, Adams is shown to be the tie-breaking vote in the ratification of Jay's Treaty when in reality the treaty was ratified by a larger margin and Adams' vote was not required).  These moments are infrequent enough as to pick them out and wonder as a class why the directors, writers and producers might have changed them.  All in all, it's an honest portrayal of a man who could be at times arrogant, impatient, even harsh with those of whom he disapproved, but whose unflinching integrity and devotion to his country and to his wife are profoundly admirable.  Indeed, I believe it is the front row seat to Adams' very relatable shortcomings that makes his remarkable qualities all the more remarkable.

Today after finishing our unit reflection, we watched the final episode.  Perhaps not as significant as earlier episodes from the standpoint of addressing our stated learning objectives: the episode covers Adams' retirement; the loss of his daughter Nabby to breast cancer, the death of Abigail following a stroke, his rekindled correspondence with Jefferson and his death on July 4, 1826--50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and several hours after Jefferson's passing.  I showed the episode to see the story through, and what a powerful thing that sense of completion is!

As we watched the ravages of age beset people we'd come to know and love, we keenly felt the loss along with them.  Many students, guys and girls alike, could be seen brushing away tears as we watched John Adams hold his dying wife in his arms and beg his "dearest friend" not to leave him behind.  Then, when Adams took his last breath (his final words having been "Jefferson survives"), the classroom was silent but for the sniffling of running noses.  My students--most, anyway--had made a real connection with the past, a connection that was as much intellectual as it was emotional.  This was not an explicit learning objective.  I'm not even sure how I'd phrase something like that.  Yet, there it was.  In this unit, my students learned about the power of words, the criteria of Just War, the rights of man, the workings of government... but I am certain that the relationship they built with John and Abigail Adams will be what gives those understandings staying power.

That is worth five class-days, I think.

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