My students were exploring the concept of African-American history in my 8th Grade US History class and I came up with this before and after activity that was sandwiched around my traditional unit. This activity was developed to assess student understanding of the topic and to measure any intellectual/emotional change as we moved through the unit.
Here’s what I did:
I began with a persuasive writing project on the concept of reparation payments for the descendants of African-American slaves in the United States. We did this cold – without any historical context. I usually do this activity at the end of my slavery unit. But, this time I started with this topic. We looked at facts and arguments surrounding the concept of slavery reparations. Then, students had to write a persuasive paper arguing either for or against the idea. Once this was complete (and graded, etc.) it was put to the side.
Exploring the Details
Then, we began our in-depth look at slavery in the United States and the history of African-Americans. This is a multi-week unit, looking at the beginnings of slavery in the original North American colonies in 1619, the laws surrounding slavery, the economic impact of slavery, the living and working conditions of slaves, the abolitionist movement, the election of 1860, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow laws, etc. Then, we jumped ahead to the Civil Rights era, exploring segregation along with the experiences and work of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. And, we included pop culture, watching excerpts from the film 12 Years a Slave and watch the movie Glory in its entirety. And, we read the novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963.
After the detailed look at slavery and the history of African-Americans, I went back to the issue of reparations. Now, armed with the realities of slavery and segregation, the facts about hate groups and the active resistance to equality, I asked students to relook at their first reparations paper and write a reflection on their opinions. Did their attitude change? If so, how? Why? Following the reflection, we had a class discussion concerning our attitudes about reparations to see if these opinions had changed in any way.
Well, I have to say that I was a little disappointed. What I hoped would happen is that all of the students who initially balked at reparations for African-American descendants of slaves would change their minds (obviously because of my awesome teaching) and become fierce advocates for some sort of amends. Instead, the outcome was a little less dramatic. Students who initially agreed with reparations continued to do so. And, students who initially were opposed to reparations were still opposed to the concept…..however, there was one sliver of silver lining in this cloud. Students who opposed reparations, when explaining their opinion, demonstrated a shift in their reasons why. Initially, most of these students believed that reparations were largely unnecessary because slavery wasn’t really that big of deal. Some, like the slave owners of old, argued that moving from underdeveloped Africa to a more modern and developing United States was a positive thing for African people. In addition, some argued, many other groups have suffered throughout history, so while should African-American slave descendants be eligible for reparations. After our unit, however, these same opponents to reparations instead argued that the large sums of money being mentioned in various articles about reparations ($100 trillion dollars, etc.) was the stumbling block for them. Rather than payments of cash, students talked about non-monetary reparations, especially subsidized education. So, in reality, my students did change their minds – they no longer opposed reparations, but rather the type of reparations.
So, although my activity didn’t result in a dramatic change in attitudes, I still take it as a win. Before and after checks like this, regardless of subject matter, can still provide a teacher with valuable information and can positively impact future teaching.
As usual, I would love to hear about your experiences with similar projects.