Social Studies: Teaching a unit on slavery

We have reached our unit on slavery, one of the most difficult and yet most necessary units I teach all  year.  My students come to me with so many misconceptions and questions about slavery – how to address these in a manner that sixth graders can comprehend? how does one address the concept of being enslaved in the first place?  how can this unit be framed in such a way as to connect it to what still goes on in the world today?  Sixth graders have such a strong sense of justice, their moral compass seems set to “true” at this age; I am ever mindful that I must tread carefully – it is important for them to examine the evidence, have time to come to their own conclusions, discuss what they have learned and process the information in a way that allows them to form their own ideas about justice, activism and so on.
When I first began teaching this period in history, I thought it was important for my students to investigate different aspects of slave life – to learn about the conditions they were forced to live under even as they struggled to preserve and nurture a sense of human dignity.  So, I created the “Slave Life Investigation” – a research data bank with information about housing, food, clothing, family life, religion and entertainment and work.  My kids research and write about what they’ve learned – and the results have always been so meaningful and moving…so much more powerful than if I’d stood before a slide show and just presented the information to them, or use the dry and antiseptic three paragraph “summary of a slave’s life” provided by our school text book.  They form  synthesis paragraphs at the end of each task, which  allows for thoughtful reflection about what they’ve just learned, how their thinking was changed, what they found moving and inspirational.

This year, we are also viewing snippets from the  HBO documentary: Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives:

Watching these  narratives, read by distinguished performers like Samuel Jackson and Alfre Woodard, has been such a moving experience.  There is so much power in listening to the delivery of each narrative, as each actor’s voice and demeanor takes on the  emotional weight of the narrated experience.  I have to be careful in sharing just those segments that are appropriate for my sixth graders – not easy to do given the pervasive brutality of the slave experience, and the vocabulary which reflects the vernacular of the time.
Altogether, even though it is an emotionally difficult unit to get through, I find that my kids start to see connections between the ideas they have explored in this unit and other terrible times in history – the Holocaust, genocides they’ve heard about on the news, and other  instances of man’s often extraordinary inhumanity towards other human beings. One of the questions that always pops up is my history class early in the year is: why do we have to know this? study this?  Why do we have to bother with history?  By this unit they have come to understand why we need to do this…yesterday, I had several students say to me: I never knew, I could not believe, I was amazed, now I understand.

That’s why we learn  history.

DigiLit Sunday: Virtual Tours in Social Studies

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DigiLit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche.  Head on over to Margaret’s blog to see what she and other teachers are doing with digital literacy in their classrooms.

For today’s DigiLit Sunday, I’m sharing a post I had written a long time ago about virtual tours in my Social Studies classroom.  There are many more such opportunities these days across different content areas, opportunities that lend themselves to rich cross-curricular learning experiences. 

Our sixth grade social studies curriculum spans the forming of the United States of America all the way to the end of the Civil War – there is a LOT of important and interesting ground to cover.  We meet and learn about  so many fascinating people, and I try very hard to make these figures from long ago come alive for my students. We study paintings, we read excerpts from journals, speeches and letters,  and we investigate what other people have thought of and written about Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln or John Adams.
My sixth graders have become pretty adept at working with text sources, but our social studies class really comes alive when I introduce them to these virtual tours.  How better to learn about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson than to visit their homes, check out the things they collected and the way they chose to go about their daily lives?
The “General House Tour” at Monticello  is by far the most detailed virtual tour I have found.  Curator Susan Stein guides you room by room, stopping to explain details and point out the significance of artifacts.  Did you know, for instance, that Jefferson’s daughter mapped out the lay out and position of every painting and piece of furniture as placed by Jefferson himself?  And good thing she did: the Monticello we visit today looks exactly the way it did when Jefferson lived there because of this map!  A few summers ago, I “toured” Monticello virtually myself and created a trail map of things to take note of – this gives their visit some structure, although they are free to investigate further with a click on this or that item they find particularly interesting.  Thanks to Stacey Shubitz, I learned about Thinglink (a site that allows you to make your images interactive) during our March SOLSC, and I plan to have my students choose items of particular interest at Monticello to label with their thinking.Monticello Virtual Tour
One of our favorite activities is to get together at the end of our tours and write a letter to Mr. Jefferson, asking a question or two or commenting about something we were amazed about. The best part about this…he writes back!  No matter how much we’ve read about Jefferson, I feel that my students really feel they know him so much better, and find him so much more interesting, after this activity.
Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation on the Potomac River, offers  another magnificent virtual tour.  Although this one does not offer an expert tour guide, the captions are detailed and filled with interesting information.  Wide angle shots and panoramic views of each room allow students to study objects and paintings up close, and they can plot their own path from room to room and floor to floor.  For this particular virtual tour, my students create guide books of their own, describing and listing points of interest and note.  A  new program is now offered at Mount Vernon: a chance to video conference with “the people that lived with our nation’s first president.” How cool is that?!