Thursday, December 11, 2014

Reconstruction, continued

Lesson Ideas, Links, Documents & Essential Questions for Reconstruction Unit

Note: this is my second post about teaching Reconstruction. See the first one here.

1. Have your students define what we mean by freedom. Whether or not you go into a lot of depth about the passage of the 13th amendment, certainly the central fact of Reconstruction is the freedom of the slaves. But freedom is a broad concept. So the question is, what did freedom mean for the newly freed slaves? What did it mean for their former masters? And how did it play out during this period? In what ways was freedom limited? Does freedom include economic opportunity? Suffrage? The ability to run for office? To live where one wants? Get an education? Go to school wherever one wants? The list could go on.... Have your students discuss this. Make lists. Make a group list. Refer to it often as you move through the unit.

2. My student teachers sometimes struggle with alternatives to lecture. While there is nothing wrong with a good lecture, it is a technique that is often overused by history teachers. There are some topics that are conducive to a brainstorm approach, in which students can figure out certain content material on their own without any sort of lecture or even a reading. The problems the nation faced after the Civil War is just one example of this. What student couldn't figure out on his or her own at least one example of a problem the nation (and you can specify North, South or both) had after the war? They all know that in wars, people die and property is destroyed. And they know that the slaves have, sort of anyway, been freed. So ask them to elaborate on that. Then you, the teacher, can add to their information.

So have students explore the scenarios below:
A. The Civil War has ended. In your groups, you have the following task. Brainstorm a list of the problems faced in the rebuilding process after the Civil War. Be specific.
  1. Categorize the problems. It is up to you to decide how to categorize them, e.g. economic, structural/rebuilding, political, etc.
  2. Rank the problems in order, most serious to least serious. You should rank each problem within each category. A problem in one category could be the most serious, followed by another problem in a different category. A problem in one category could be the most serious, followed by another problem in a different category.
B. You are a former slave in the South. You have four options:
  1. move North
  2. move West
  3. move elsewhere in the South
  4. stay put  
Then, in groups or as a class, discuss what option they might choose. What are the pros and cons of each option? How would their choice depend on whatever their specific circumstances are, e.g. if they were male or female, young or old, a parent, a child, on a large plantation, small farm, in the city, etc. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of the options? How would a former slave make him or herself aware of the options? Would he or she have to be able to read?
In both scenarios above, you now have the option to fill in the gaps during a discussion. You can point out how being illiterate might have hampered a former slave's ability to move, or the impact of the Homestead Act. (The latter scenario I adapted from a lesson in an excellent book for teachers, United States History: Eyes on the Economy). It is available for purchase online, and some lessons have been reproduced online. Pointing out economic costs and benefits can be a useful way to understand this period.

3. For teaching about the Freedmen's Bureau, some of the problems the newly freed slaves had, and the efforts of the government to help solve those problems, you can use this student-ready handout in groups. And here is a more middle-school friendly version of the document. I'm not sure where I got the original version of this document, but you can find more information/documents on the Freedmen's Bureau at the sites below.
4. What to do about Andrew Johnson? A few miscellaneous ideas:

  • Use the political cartoon above. It's a useful introduction to his problem. You can find additional political cartoons by Thomas Nast here.
  • Use the three essential questions below to demonstrate the political problem of Reconstruction that led to his impeachment. Pointing out that Andrew Johnson and Congress had very different answers to each of the three are part of the explanation for impeachment.
  1. Should the South be punished or pardoned?
  2. Should the federal government take responsibility for the social, economic and political well-being of the slaves?
  3. Who should be in charge of Reconstruction, Congress or the President? 
  • You can have a trial, debate, discussion, etc. in which students take a position. I was going to include the one I have used, but looking back at it, it needs some serious revision. So, in the interest of finishing this blog post before everyone who is reading it has long since finished their Reconstruction units (if you haven't already), I have decided not to include mine.
4. Here is my version of a DBQ I have put together for classroom use. And a few suggestions about DBQs:

  • There are so many ready-made DBQs out there, collected in books and online. (See for example, the high-quality DBQ Project. But I think it is really important to tailor even the best of them (including mine that I linked to above) to your students. You may need to edit some of the documents, eliminate some, add others, replace one, add different instructions, etc. 
  • I always tell students the question in advance. Unless you are trying to prepare students for the AP test and want to give them practice with blind DBQs, I feel that knowing the question in advance gives students something to focus on when they study. No one writes a paper without knowing the topic in advance, so I always like to tell students essay questions and DBQ questions in advance even if I am using them as a test or final assessment. Sometimes I give them the exact wording. Sometimes I just tell them the overall topic. This is assuming you are using a DBQ as an in-class activity. It is also entirely possible to have students work on the DBQ over the course of several days or completely on their own at home, or a combination of the two.
  • I usually use a combination of documents they have already seen in class and some new ones they have not. For example, I really like using this document in class which is from a chapter by Eric Foner in a collection of essays on Reconstruction. In light of Ferguson, I am finding it particularly compelling. I use it without the paragraph by Foner (but included it here so teachers have a reference). I have used it by having students make a simple t-chart in their notes, and then think about what is positive in this document (e.g. see the points that Foner makes, such as that the author feels empowered to write to the governor, author can write) and what is negative (e.g. author's writing is full of errors, the incident itself). And then you can point out whatever students didn't figure out on their own and/or quote a bit from Foner's interpretation.
  • Ideally, I also like to use at least a few visuals: photos or political cartoons or drawings. A chart or graph is also nice.  And I like to use at least one or two secondary sources, too. Often, I will use a passage from their textbook. I have not included that in this DBQ, but you can easily add a passage from the textbook you use.
  • Another option for this DBQ would be to include a chart of Reconstruction legislation or to allow students to bring in one that they completed in class or for homework. This rewards them for having taken notes from the textbook, if you use one, or from another source. I also have been moving further and further away from having students memorize lots of information (only to forget it). Being familiar with Reconstruction legislation and the big ideas are what I am aiming for, so including details on the DBQ helps students recall information they have learned or read about without having to memorize them in order to refer to them in their essay.
  • At this point in the school year, your students may already have some experience with DBQs. Whether they do or not, I think it is always useful to give students suggestions and practice. You can even have them work on their thesis statements as an in-class activity in advance of the DBQ.

Next post: how to handle the content-overload of the period 1865-1900 (minus Reconstruction).


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