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: