Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools

By Linda S. Levstik ; Keith C. Barton | Go to book overview

Nosotros La Gente
Chapter 12
Diverse Perspectives in American History

After reviewing the changes in the Virginia colony that led to an increased demand for labor, Rebecca Valbuena asks her fifth-graders what they think of when they hear the word slave. Many of them have clear but fairly simple ideas, which Rebecca records on a chart--"they were whipped," "Black," "they had no freedom," "it was a long time ago," "they were always in chains." She explains that they are going to find out which of their ideas are correct and which they need to add to or change. After recording a list of their questions about slavery on another chart, she selects several students to perform Readers' Theater scripts based on firsthand accounts of the three passages of enslavement. After reading each selection, students brainstorm words to describe what slaves might have heard, seen, and touched, as well as what they might have said or felt. They then use these words and ideas to write poems from the perspective of enslaved Africans.

Over the course of this unit, students engage in several activities designed to extend and refine their understanding of slavery. In their second lesson, for example, they work in groups to develop a list of basic human rights--they suggest such things as privacy, being safe outside, speech, feelings, religion, clean air, nature, life, freedom, and "being yourself." She then shows them engravings of enslaved Africans and examples of slave codes from colonial Virginia; students compare these restrictions to their own list of rights and analyze why slave owners considered such measures necessary. The class concludes this lesson by discussing contemporary examples of violations of human rights; some students' families come from Guatemala and El Salvador and can supply examples from those countries, while others make comparisons to what they have learned at school about the Civil Rights movement, to media reports of events in Bosnia and Rwanda, or to their knowledge of topics--such as child abuse and sexual abuse--which rarely are discussed in school.

***

Rhoda Coleman's fifth-graders begin their study of the Westward Movement of the mid-1800s by reading two selections from their basal series--one a collection of tall tales from the American West, the other a set of first-person accounts by Native Americans about the loss of their land. Earlier in the year, the class had studied the cultures of several Native American peoples, as well as the earliest contacts between Europeans and Native Americans, and so most students readily contribute to a Venn diagram comparing the perspectives of Native Americans and settlers. Before recess, students plot the routes of several of the major trails--such as the Oregon Trail and the National Road--on individual maps. After recess, Rhoda leads the class in beginning a KWL chart on the Westward movement--recording what they know already and what they want to know.

After lunch, Rhoda reads aloud from Cassie's Journey--an account of the trip west based primarily on women's diaries--and stops frequently to discuss the book with students. Working in groups of three, students then develop a list of the hardships these settlers faced--either those they have just read about or others they know about or can imagine. After compiling a class list of these problems, Rhoda selects several students to be on the "Hot Seat"--to come to the front of the room to portray men, women, and children traveling west, and to respond to questions from their classmates about the journey. They base some of their answers on what they have already learned today, while other questions are added to the KWL chart. Afterward, students write letters home from the perspectives of people on the journey, detailing where they are, what their hopes are, and what their think and feel. Over the next weeks, students will continue to listen to Cassie's Journey and other books, and they will use a variety of reference sources to investigate their questions and create simulated journals from the perspective of people on the trip west.

Many teachers do not have the choice of studying the topics they or their students consider important; they don't have the option of exploring the Holocaust, Japanese

-153-

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