Bullet points to the West

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Hilary Kemeny reviews a selection of GCSE texts charting the changing face of America

THE AMERICAN WEST By Susan Willoughby Heinemann Secondary History Project Pounds 7.25

THE AMERICAN WEST By Rosemary Rees Longman History Project Pounds 7.99

The USA 1917-1980 By Nigel Smith Oxford History for GCSE Pounds 6.50

KEY HISTORY. MODERN AMERICA By Chris Macdonald and Jon Nichol Stanley Thornes Pounds 6.50

I spent a year in a Chicago 14-18 high school in the early Seventies, and the US history course was a compulsory graduation requirement. After the initial confusion about the "Great American Revolution" (they thought it was very quaint when the penny dropped and I innocently said, "Ah, you mean the War of Independence") I found the whistle-stop tour from 1775 to c1965 via the Gold Rush, Wounded Knee, the New Deal, Civil Rights and so on fascinating. Reading these books, designed for the Schools History Project and Modern World syllabuses respectively, I had a certain sense of deja vu.

All four are designed to meet the demands of the new syllabuses and provide a basis for appropriate core andor depth studies. Heinemann's The American West is lively and colourful, with a lot of photographic and pictorial source material. Focus questions are used throughout and short sub-sections, bullet points and summaries are used to reinforce key issues. Exercise sections are designed to develop students' knowledge and understanding and make some use of the source material given. Parallel editions of the book are available, along with a teacher Assessment and Resource pack.

Rosemary Rees's The American West appears more dense in its presentation, but the sources are well-integrated into the text, with sub-headings and focus questions which provide some sign-posting. The tasks draw on the sources and throughout the book some useful grids and charts are given for students to record their findings, Accompanying copymaster packs are available for this series. The experience of women in the two periods studied is more visible throughout, although the interpretation of their role is more superficial in the Heinemann book, as is the analysis of the eventual defeat of the Plains Indians and the impact of the reservations.

Nigel Smith's The USA 1917-1980 is aimed at "average attaining" students, while intended also to support achievement at higher levels. The chapters are organised chronologically and some issues and themes are revisited at appropriate points, for example, the experience of Black Americans. A narrative style is adopted, in a variable-width, two-column format, with an appropriate range of source material appearing in the columns as it occurs in the text. Comprehension questions are included at key points and an essay question is also given at the end of each chapter.

An enduring image of the Kennedy assassination forms an important part of the introduction to Chris Macdonald and Jon Nichol's Modern America with a source evaluation exercise. These authors adopt an "enquiry" approach to the period throughout, for example, "key questions" appear at the beginning of each chapter and sub-section and the questions given in the text relate much more closely to the sources used. A chronological approach is used, with a separate section on the civil rights movement. It is the more challenging of the two books, but supports the development of interpretative and evaluation skills more effectively.

Hilary Kemeny is a staff tutor on the PGCE course at the Open University

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