Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Reading Primary Sources - A Group Reading by Frederick Douglass

Trying to integrate primary source documents into the classroom can be a challenge for history teachers. The length and complexity of many documents lead to the use of excerpts, but this can interfere with meaning and understanding.

One of my favorite documents to help students understand the post-Civil War African-American experience is "The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World's Columbian Exposition."

Why I like this document:

1. It is written from the point of view of African Americans during the nadir (peak) of racial discrimination in America, and it addresses the world audience at a moment when that audience would be paying attention (at the time of the World's Fair).

2. It has a beautifully written introduction by none other than Frederick Douglass. While many teachers focus on his "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" (or excerpts thereof), the narrative focuses only on his experiences in America as a slave. There is a common misconception among students that the atrocities perpetrated against African Americans ended with slavery, and only focusing on documents during the slave-holding period perpetuates this myth. Therefore, I prefer this document which provides a narrative of African American experiences both during and after slavery.

I love the expression he uses in the introduction - "rope of sand"

3. It incorporates quantitative evidence. One of the primary skills of studying history is using evidence and we often tend to focus on textual evidence in the classroom. However, the use of tabular, graphic, and statistical data is a useful skill to develop as well. This document has some fantastic quantitative data for charting, graphing, etc. AND the numbers tell a story all their own:

Students need to understand that violence against African Americans in the post-Civil War period was escalating, not receding. They need the hard evidence that proves this. They need to understand the social dynamic that led to this increased violence and how the behavior of black men was criminalized, leading to incarceration and convict labor. This document helps students understand how "The New South" worked.

It was a place where African Americans were prevented from exercising their Constitutional rights -- the ones earned with American blood during the Civil War. The 13th Amendment was circumvented by convict labor and debt peonage. The 14th Amendment was circumvented with Jim Crow Laws and lynch mobs. The 15th Amendment was circumvented by poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests. The New South was a place where hundreds of black men, women, and children were murdered with impunity by white mobs.

So, how do we get students to read such a lengthy and deserving document?

1. Group Read Aloud
One strategy is to break the introduction into smaller sections and have students take turns reading it aloud. This saves on printing if you cut strips of the text and then put the whole document on the screen using a SmartBoard or document camera. You can also let students preview their section of text ahead of time so that they are prepared to read aloud. I have done this type of reading with all levels and it works well - especially if you market it right.

No, seriously. We make many decisions in life and they aren't always the easy kind. 

2. Jigsaw It
Instead of reading together as a whole group in a round-robin style, have students read portions of the text in small groups. When they finish in their small group, they can then present their portion to the whole group. If you want to make sure they actually do a good job and pay attention, though, you might want to give a quiz at the end of the presentations.

3. Require Note-Taking
As mentioned above, this document contains a wealth of factual information on the New South. Have students take notes from it. Make a scavenger hunt out of it and require different types of data in the responses.

My favorite is the group read-aloud for this particular text because it is powerful and I like students to hear powerful text out loud. I particularly like the call to action toward the end. "Contend! Contend!"

Have you come across a must-read primary source document?

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