Harriet Jacobs: Using Online Slave Narratives in the Classroom

By Bolick, Cheryl Mason; McGlinn, Meghan M. | Social Education, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Harriet Jacobs: Using Online Slave Narratives in the Classroom


Bolick, Cheryl Mason, McGlinn, Meghan M., Social Education


The teacher of a local high school U.S. history course recently took her students to the computer lab. She had selected a series of online primary sources for her students to analyze. This teacher believes in providing students with opportunities to interpret and analyze online historical texts so students may develop their own, meaningful understanding of the past. Her students were eager to work in the lab and immediately started on their assignments. After a while, however, she started to notice flagging motivation and that students were sneaking off to "Ask Jeeves" and "Google" for help. Worse, their interpretations of the primary documents read online demonstrated only minimal understanding. What had gone wrong? In the past, her students all exhibited technological savvy and had regular experience using the Internet for school and personal uses. Why did this online learning activity seemingly backfire?

Teachers most interested in a constructivist approach to historical instruction like the one above often use new technology to provide realistic, inquiry-based learning situations for their students. Recent research in social studies learning has de-emphasized student memorization of facts and text-based instruction in favor of engaging students in historical inquiry. (1) Milson reports "the research base has indicated that students learn history most effectively when they are engaged in asking historical questions, collecting and analyzing historical sources, and determining historical significance." (2) As such, teacher educators and classroom teachers are very concerned that social studies students actively participate in the development of their understanding.

New technology provides an increasing array of tools with which teachers can present realistic learning situations that engage their students. Through the Internet, teachers and students can access a wider variety of social studies information such as primary sources, maps, videos, photographs, discussion boards, and much more in order to create inquiry-based activities.

As the nature of social studies instruction evolves due to the integration of technology, so too is student literacy undergoing major changes--students now need to develop the skills necessary to use online texts meaningfully in educational settings. This literacy includes the ability to not only locate appropriate hypertexts but also to critically read, analyze, evaluate and make inferences about these texts.

Too often, educators assume that the younger generation, first referred to as the "Net Generation," possess the prerequisite computer skills necessary for computer-assisted instruction. Teachers especially need to realize that, while students may be able to navigate Web pages and search engines or play realistic games with ease, they are not always able to transfer this knowledge to school-related tasks. Tancock, for instance, points out the multiple literacy skills required of students to complete a Web-based project. (3) These included reading and writing skills such as skimming, scanning, interpreting and summarizing, and technology and communication skills such as using search engines and sharing findings. Teacher guidance is therefore essential to the development of student literacy in the use of online resources. By overtly coaching students in order to help them develop these skills, teachers can avoid many of the frustrations related to computer-assisted instruction and, over time, students will be able to more independently use hypertext to develop social studies understanding.

While educators cannot assume that student knowledge of computers means content learning becomes easier for students online, teachers need not be dissuaded from using technology. In order for students to effectively use hypertexts in the social studies classroom, teachers must select appropriate online materials and coach their students on how to use computer-based research materials.

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Harriet Jacobs: Using Online Slave Narratives in the Classroom
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