Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Who Freed the Slaves: Using Primary Sources as Evidence

PrimarySources_LincolnConsidering Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation

In elementary school I learned that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. I held on to that belief for many years. It wasn’t until college that I was forced to confront what was, for me, an uncomfortable reality: preserving the union was Lincoln’s overarching objective, not emancipation.

It’s been 150 years since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite his misgivings–and in spite of more convenient motivations that may have spurred his action—the proclamation was a key step toward ending “that peculiar institution” in the South.

It wasn’t the only step, however, as we learn in workshop 4 of the Primary Sources: Workshops in American History series. A convergence of events would ultimately end slavery.

The video in this workshop features teachers as students and asks them to study primary source documents to find evidence to support their points of view. Early in the video, teachers are asked to consider what Lincoln believed. As you watch the video, consider the different perspectives these teachers have. Was freeing the slaves a tactic? Or, as one teacher believes, did Lincoln act on a moral imperative? What happens when the teachers examine the primary source document?

How might this approach to teaching history be used with students? How might you ask students to report their conclusions?

Analyzing Primary Sources

As the Primary Sources workshops show, using primary source documents can give us a deeper understanding of historical events. You can also use primary source documents from the Civil War era to spur students’ imaginations.

As we learn in Artifacts & Fiction: A Workshop in American Literature, analyzing artifacts requires students to ask questions, explore possible answers, and draw conclusions.

A terrific tool to get you started is the Pair Finder. Select a literary movement and a discipline. The Pair Finder will provide an artifact, such as a painting, a photograph, or a commonly used item. When I paired Slavery and Freedom with Ritual Artifacts, for example, a picture of a painting that appeared on flags of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) was provided.

Use images like this to inspire a creative response in your students. For example, your students could assume the role of a newly freed slave and express how they feel when they see the flag and the men marching behind it. Ask students to write a journal entry to describe their thoughts and feelings.

Explore the Pair Finder and other primary source documents you find, and think about how you can incorporate these documents into your lessons.

Bringing it Full Circle

It has been a long time since I was in elementary school. It may not be fair to say, but I’m not sure my teachers were interested in exploring Abraham Lincoln’s contradictions. Why do you think the teachers in the Primary Sources video were willing to wrestle with that reality? How will their students benefit?

I, like one teacher in the video, still hold to the belief that Lincoln did, at his very core, abhor slavery and was shrewd enough to gradually introduce the idea of emancipation to a torn nation.

What do you believe? And what is your evidence?

‘Common Sense’ for the Common Core

Primary Sources_wkshp2If you are a high school English/language arts or American history teacher, chances are that you are actively involved in developing curriculum guides and teaching strategies for addressing the Common Core State Standards for reading and understanding primary source documents. While the standards don’t specify instructional approaches, the end goal is clear:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.9 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is considered a key exhibit in our nation’s collection of founding documents and the CCSS authors list it as an exemplar text for 11th and 12th grades. Historians credit the document with launching the movement to seek independence from the British monarchy sooner rather than later. It is a tightly structured and forceful argument that provides educators with a platform for guiding students through the process of critical analysis.

Workshop 2, “Common Sense and the American Revolution: The Power of the Printed Word” of the series Primary Sources: Workshops in American History places the 48-page document in a powerful context that amplifies its significance in events leading to independence.

Did you know that Thomas Paine had been in the colonies only a few weeks before he took pen to parchment? Prior to the publication of Common Sense, the colonists were seeking reconciliation with England, not independence. The first published argument for independence, Common Sense became the 18th century equivalent of an international best seller. Consider how the events leading to independence might have been different if Benjamin Franklin had not persuaded a 39-year-old former tax collector to seek work in the colonies.

Take a look at how teacher Andrew Sullivan adapted what he learned from the workshop to create an activity that engages students with key concepts within Common Sense.  You will also find links to additional primary source documents such as the James County, Virginia, Statement of Independence. These documents encourage thoughtful comparison of Paine’s argument to, and open a window onto colonist’s involvement in, decisions made by the Second Continental Congress.

What instructional strategies are you employing to help your students use and understand primary source documents such as Common Sense?