Teaching history as history is happening

Veteran teacher puts impeachment inquiry into historical context

AP U.S. History teacher Bill Crane discusses a lesson about Andrew Jackson with, from left, Molly Shine, Jackson Douma and Emily Danks

Standing under the signatures of all 45 U.S. presidents scrawled on the classroom ceiling, Bill Crane kicked off his AP U.S. History class with a charged discussion of the current one.   

“Yesterday was a pretty historic day for our country,” Crane said, referring to the U.S. House of Representatives vote formalizing the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. “This will put us clearly on the path towards impeachment. I’m not saying he will be impeached,” he clarified, “but this puts us on a clearer track for the impeachment process.”

Surrounding him were photos of Lincoln and Reagan, history’s heroes from Martin Luther King Jr. to the Little Rock Nine, and newspaper front pages of the JFK assassination and Clinton impeachment. Before him were 16 students learning about history in real time, relating the America of eras past to the unfolding investigation of President Trump. 

Teacher Bill Crane says he wants his students to become ‘engaged participants in our democracy’

In his 26 years of teaching history at Rockford High School, rarely has the subject been so immediately relevant to his students’ lives. Despite the tumult of the moment, Crane relishes the chance to help them connect historical context to current events. That means, first of all, understanding what’s happening in the daily drama of America. 

“What are the leveling charges for impeachment?” he asked the class of mostly sophomores. “It has to be what, what or what?”

“Isn’t it high crimes and misdemeanors?” ventured Evan Joosten. Treason and bribery, two other students added, correctly. Molly Shine boiled it down succinctly: “Isn’t it acting in ways you’re not supposed to?” 

These are the questions Crane loves to awaken in his students, in the subject he’s had a passion for since he was their age. 

Encouraging Respectful Disagreement 

Since being hired in 1994, Crane has sought to bring history alive and make it exciting for his students – even fun. Hence the presidential signatures on his ceiling tiles, traced over projections by four students fueled by pizza one afternoon. 

Ditto the “APUSH Hall of Fame” posters lining the walls, featuring everyone from Alexander Hamilton and Eleanor Roosevelt to Jesus, Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs and, last year, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee. Each year in AP U.S. History, students nominate figures, make presentations on their historic significance and the class votes. Crane keeps a log of all the nominees his 888 students have made in the past 10 years. 

‘The partisanship we see outside gives us an opportunity to rise up to be better than that.’

– Bill Crane, AP U.S. History teacher

A glance at other walls, bearing the flag, John Hancock’s signature and the Constitution’s opening words, clues you into what Crane wants his students to learn about America. 

“I want kids to think critically. I want them to evaluate. I want them to justify,” said Crane, who also teaches American studies. “My hope or goal is to get them engaged in politics, to vote, to be engaged participants in our democracy.” 

Lofty ideals, but how to teach civil engagement in a time of political trench warfare and bitter division? It’s not easy, admits Crane, who covers 500 years of history in the yearlong course while preparing students for their Advanced Placement tests in May and a chance for college credit (his pass rate: 95 percent). But he aims to have them transcend the vitriol by respecting each other’s opinions.

“The partisanship we see outside gives us an opportunity to rise up to be better than that,” Crane said. “We can in fact be an example. When we leave Rockford High School, we can be that example of appreciating differing opinions.” 

Bill Crane goes over an assignment before class with Patrick Erickson

Once Inspired, Now Inspiring  

His students say Crane accomplishes his aims exceedingly well. 

“He has a very subtle way of incorporating the lessons we’re learning into modern-day, putting it in a way that we seem as if we’re there,” said Evan Joosten, a sophomore who would like to teach history. “It doesn’t just seem like we’re reading it out of some textbook.” 

Crane makes history compelling by putting its details into a bigger picture and bringing forward its relevance to what’s happening now, agrees ninth grader Alissa Vezikov.

“He connects not only the lesson to modern-day, but to past eras, so we can learn from history and don’t just learn about it,” said Alissa, who’s interested in social justice and law. 

Like them, Crane was inspired by a high school history teacher – Joe Meert, of St. Philip Catholic Central High School in Battle Creek. Engaging and passionate, Meert amplified Crane’s interest in politics, the Iran hostage crisis and President Reagan. A summer touring Boston’s historic places with his aunt and uncle convinced him “I wanted to teach, and I wanted to teach this kind of class,” said Crane, who went on to major in history at Central Michigan University. 

His kind of class is heavy on student interaction and input, group work and options on how he assesses their work. It’s light on textbooks: He uses none, relying instead on historical documents and highly detailed handouts he prepares. 

“I try to give kids ownership in the lesson as much as possible,” he said.

Teacher Bill Crane reviews the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry with his AP U.S. History class

Study Reveals Present Parallels  

On the day he discussed the impeachment inquiry vote, Crane began class, as always, by inviting them to share good news: successes in tennis tourneys, debate, band. He then asked them particulars of the inquiry: Why would the House vote to impeach? How many senators would be needed to convict? 

“These are very much some trying times we’re starting to move through,” he told them. 

It seemed a short hop into the day’s lesson on an earlier trying time: the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a controversial populist whose portrait hangs in President Trump’s Oval Office. Students worked from a five-page handout detailing Jackson’s shutdown of the national bank, his censure by the Senate and his “Trail of Tears” removal of Native Americans to the West. 

They broke into groups to analyze a cartoon of the time portraying Jackson as a king, trampling on the Constitution. As they wrote arguments for and against the cartoonist’s point of view, students noted parallels to criticisms of Trump. 

“There’s a lot of similarities between their rule, and who they thought they were appealing to, what their policies were,” said Garrett Floerchinger, getting nods from his group mates. Added Conner Wolowink, “History repeats itself, and that’s why we take history.”

Crane teaches history to generate just such discussions, and to help students apply lessons from the past to the contentious present. But beyond history, he wants them to learn lifelong skills, believe in themselves and look back fondly on their time with him.

“I want them to remember me as a teacher who cared, a teacher who’s passionate,” he said. “That’s what I wake up for every day, to try to make a difference.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Joe was my father in law. I did not get to know him for as long as many people did, but He was the kindest man I ever met . He could look at a person and see past their faults into their heart and know that they were good. He could make you believe that about yourself. I miss him. Thank You for remembering him and keeping his spirit alive .

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