Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Biographies in the US HIstory Classroom

As the second year of Encounters and Exchanges draws to a close, the continuous theme of using biographies to teach history has inspired many of my lesson plans. From books focusing on the exciting lives of Kit Carson, and Harriet Jacobs (to name a few), field trips highlighting the lives of renown Massachusetts transcendentalists Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott, to Julie Winch’s book and presentation on James Forten and Gwedolyn Quezaire-Presutti’s performance as Maria W. Stewart at the Teaching American History annual conference, one can easily acknowledge the benefits of teaching history through biographies. Biographies have the ability to draw students into the history for the enjoyment of the narrative and appreciation for the significance of one man or woman’s actions, as opposed to an often cold and remote textbook.

After reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, for the book discussion group, I immediately recognized the compelling appeal of Jacobs’ life, and presented the first four chapters to my students. As time is high demand for all classrooms, however, even one of Jacobs’ chapters reveals an interesting and informative story to supplement the textbook. Take chapter one, for example: in order to guide reading and develop an understanding about the vast complexities of slavery, especially in regards to a young slave girl, students created Jacobs’ family tree through her recollections of her relatives. Once students attained this basic understanding of Jacobs’ life, they recorded examples of how Jacobs’ family impacted her life, which would help connect the events and unique circumstances of Jacobs’ trialed life. Finally, students made practical connections between Jacobs’ life and the broader history we studied as well as personal reflections on the impact of slavery on an individual’s life.

US History I teachers have no need to wait for a classroom set of Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography to utilize a slave biography in the classroom. Research and oral history projects have made enormous headway in documenting the lives of former slaves. The Library of Congress: American Memory’s “Voices from the Days of Slavery” collection contains the narratives of former slaves, available in audio and text form. Design generic, guiding questions that can be applied to all narratives. Have students make basic observation about the person’s life (family life, skills, living conditions), integrate their life into the broader history of the US, and finally, reflect what one can learn from an individual’s story.

The link for The Library of Congress: American Memory’s “Voices from the Days of Slavery,” is:

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Great Sources for Slavery, Slave Narratives, Abolition and More!

The Book Discussion Groups and its books have certainly had quite a few plugs in these blogs. I know I've already written an entry with my praises for Hampton Sides' Blood and Thunder. Quite a few of the books in Year II of the grant have dealt with various themes related to African Americans, Slavery, Abolition, and the coming of the Civil War. Black Jacks by W. Jeffrey Bolster, The Approaching Fury, by Stephen B. Oates, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, were all excellent. I have been working on my final project for the Book Group, and have been utilizing some great sources.

One source is the PBS site Africans in America. (see link below) It has a collection of images, documents, stories, biographies and commentaries depicting America's journey through slavery. The site compliments the PBS documentary Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery. The 2 DVD set was a Peabody Award Winner, and was given to all participants of the Book Discussion Goup. Using the chapter search function, you can focus on certain topics quite easily. Since there are participants from all of the systems in the book groups, find a colleague and ask them to share this treasure!

Another great resource for slavery topics is a site with a series of slave narratives published by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (see link below) It is rich with primary sources to compliment many units of study. also is a useful site.(see link below) It has an image gallery, lesson plans, and narratives. Likewise, the Lost Museum (see link below) is a good find, too. It has a database of archived primary sources. You can search by key words or themes. This site was created by the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning with the Graduate Center, City University of New York and George Mason University.

My greatest find was the site The Valley of the Shadow, which contained three excellent primary sources illustrating the Southern defense of slaveholding. These documents would really spark interesting discussions and help students of the 21st Century see the arguments and values of Southern whites.

I hope you find these sites useful. There's so much great stuff out there. Enjoy! Africans in America site by PBS.

http://docsouth.unc.eud/neh/texts.html University of North Carolina Slave Narratives Slavery in America There is an image gallery, lesson plans, and narratives Lost Museum archives Primary sources for the Southern defense of slavery

Photograph Activity

I recently participated in a workshop on Reconstruction at Primary Source, an organization that I was introduced to as a grant participant last year. A fantastic teacher at the workshop presented an activity on analyzing photographs, and since I am always looking for new ways to analyze primary sources, I really latched on. The steps are as follows, and this activity could also work well with paintings.

1. Choose a person in the photograph to 'be'.

2. As that person, think about the following questions:

  • What do you see?

  • What do you think?

  • What do you feel?

This forces the students to not only place themselves into the source, but to also to identify with different groups or people. The teacher at the workshop used a photograph taken at a lynching, and asked us to step inside the photograph and take the role of the men that had committed the murder, the man who was lynched, and the children that had been watching. You may even ask your students to take on the role of the photographer.

What would your students say about the image in this post?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Second Annual Encounters and Exchanges Conference

What a great opportunity many of us had the Friday before vacation to participate in the Encounters and Exchanges Annual Conference. It is a very satisfying feeling to participate in a day that you know enriches you both as a classroom teacher and as a professional.

The day began with an excellent presentation by Julie Winch, a professor of History at UMass Boston. Dr. Winch introduced the group to several biographies of Free African-Americans. Dr. Winch used many common primary sources to open up our minds to people who might have been otherwise lost to History. One of the most important goals of this conference/grant is to help improve content knowledge and pedagogy of history teachers. Dr. Winch's presentation did indeed cause me to rethink about my various approaches to teaching. I would love the chance to teach my fifth graders about history through the eyes of more everyday people. (So often I think we as teachers are bogged down with "covering" those famous people that the state of Massachusetts tells us that students must know.)

After Julie's presentation, I had the excellent opportunity to give my own presentation to other elementary colleagues. Over the last couple of years, I have had the chance to give a handful of presentations to adults, which is something that I have found that I really enjoy doing. Although it can be nerve-racking at first, sharing ideas with colleagues in this kind of format has been excellent.

Lunchtime proved to be another great part of the day! The weather was beautiful and I was able to go outside with a handful of other history teachers, some from Reading and some from other places. This kind of informal opportunities can prove to be some of the best times for networking and sharing of resource ideas.

My second session of the day was an excellent presentation by the Museum of Fine Arts. This presentation ended up being rather ironic for me. Last summer, I spent a great deal of time on the Internet attempting to find works of art that could be included in a series of lessons that I was creating for the Content Institute that I was taking through the grant. I found myself totally lost in the MFA website, and unable to get the images that I needed. Low and behold, the MFA has created a fabulous tool for teachers. Not only are you able to get access to almost their entire collection, but they also have a fabulous curriculum called VTS, Visual Thinking Strategies. Check it out! It will be worth your time.

The last section of the day saw a performance by Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti as Maria W. Stewart, a female African-American abolitionist from Massachusetts. I always find performers like Ms. Quezaire-Presutti to be fascinating. The amount of time that she has dedicated to perfecting her craft is impressive. Check her out at

If you weren't able to join us last year, I hope that you will consider joining us and encouraging all of your colleagues to do the same!