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I’ve been viewing the documentary “The Murder of Emmett Till” (PBS) with students in my US History II sections for as long as I can remember. The tragic history of this young boy’s murder, more than any other civil rights-related story I’ve shared, seems to captivate the students, many of whom are only recently out of high school, and instill in them a deep sense of frustration and anger. It forces them to grapple with the profound sadness of Mamie Till while also recognizing the courage with which she challenged Americans to face the horrifying reality of violence against African Americans in her lifetime. 


As I plan to teach the course again in the spring I’ve been (as always) reassessing my syllabus. Based upon this semester’s students’ interests, I’ve decided that we will increase our study of the Till case in the spring to include both online resources and recent coverage of the reopening of the case by the Justice Department. Here are some of the resources I plan to use with my students.


  • PBS maintains a web site to accompany the film with numerous articles valuable for class discussion and analysis. Included is the published confession by the two men who murdered Till as well as historical information on lynching in the United States.


  • Florida State University has launched The Emmett Till Archives with archival materials derived from the case as well as audio-visual documentation of interviews with participants in the trial and subsequent legal actions.


  • 2018 news coverage of the re-opening of the Till trial is available through numerous national news sites, including NPR, Time, and CNN, providing students the opportunity to consider how the narrative of the Till case is being shaped in today’s world in light of Black Lives Matter and other major civil rights initiatives.


Discussion of the Till case this past semester prompted students to ask questions about the clumsy process of school desegregation following Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which is not a topic I typically cover in the course. For spring semester I will be using components of Old Dominion University’s Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) web-based resources. I’m hopeful that the interest expressed in this topic by my fall semester students will be shared by those I teach in the spring. The biggest challenge will be deciding where I can trim the syllabus to make space! Have you done any trimming to your US II syllabus recently? Suggestions welcome.

December 15, 1791--Virginia became the last state needed to ratify the Bill of Rights, giving the bill the necessary 2/3 majority of votes needed to be made into law¹. Since its inception, the Bill of Rights has become the cornerstone of American civil liberties, but the interpretations of these amendments have always been in flux--changing to suit the needs and interpretations of both the legal system and the country's political opinions. For instance, the Bill of Rights included 12 Amendment, two of which were left out, one later then was ratified in 1992 becoming the 27th Amendment¹ .


The Supreme Court continues to have an impact on the Bill of Rights. Here are several landmark cases that have redefined the boundaries of the Bill of Rights:


1.Schenck v. United States (1919)

In a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court had ruled that freedom of speech can be limited during wartime and when it can cause harm.

2. Olmstead v. United States (1927)

The Supreme Court had ruled that the government is allowed to wiretap people without a warrant and that it is admissible in court. It wasn't until 40 years later that this ruling was overturned in Katz v. United States.

3. Furman v. Georgia (1972)

The Supreme Court had decided that the death penalty is a "cruel and unusual" punishment under the 8th Amendment and, therefore, was unconstitutional. Four years later, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling under Gregg v. Georgia.

If you would like to incorporate information on landmark cases in your classroom, feel free to check out:


1. Bill of Rights is finally ratified - HISTORY 

Students are turning in final projects this week for my online courses. With only two weeks until final exams, the end of the semester is bearing down on us all. And though these students have been working with me since the first week of September, many are still struggling with a basic life skill: following directions. They have had several weeks to work independently on their projects and plenty of time to ask questions. Yet, in spite of what I have offered them in instruction and assistance, I am receiving finished work from students who clearly did not read the directions. 


Case in point: sources. Here is the actual text from my instructions (highlighting in original):

Required Sources: Three articles from assigned academic databases (*see below*)

*ACADEMIC DATABASES: Students must use materials from the databases linked through the college library to our course. Link is accessible through our course LaunchPad.

*UNACCEPTABLE SOURCES:  Wikipedia,, OR anything NOT from the assigned academic databases.

To my horror, the first few projects I received from students contain none of the required sources. I am wracking my brain to understand why. Was I mistaken to believe that highlighting what I considered an essential requirement of the assignment would force students to pay attention to it? Is there some new way of drawing students’ attention to key elements of instructions that I have missed? Or, are my online students simply not reading the directions? 

As a strong proponent of online courses I teach half of my course load online. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the students might miss by not physically being in a classroom for instruction. I, for example, do not have the opportunity to observe confusion on students’ faces when I give assignments. Instead I have no choice but to rely on students’ willingness to email me with questions. Is there something more I could be doing? Do we, as faculty, have an obligation to ensure that our online students have read and understood the directions? For those who teach online in any discipline, what (if any) steps are you taking to address this challenge? Please share.