Teaching about Slavery with EDSITEment resources by Professor Bethany Jay
As Americans experience the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it is necessary to spend time reflecting on the institution of slavery. For those of us who spend a majority of our time in front of a classroom full of students, these reflections immediately turn to the question of how to teach this difficult subject. There are some challenges to talking about slavery that are virtually universal. Many of these challenges stem from the sensitive nature of the subject of race and slavery in the United States. One needs only to look at the 2008 election to find evidence of both the importance of race in American culture and the fact that the American public still has a hard time talking about the subject. Part of the American public’s problems with race stems from the widespread sense of shame at its very existence as part of the American story. For many people, the nation’s history of slavery is so antithetical to its values that a sustained discussion of the subject seems somehow unpatriotic.
Teachers confront these challenges when they talk about slavery with their students but they also face difficulties that are unique to their profession. Every time the issue of slavery is mentioned, teachers across the grade levels bring up their concerns about the topic. Elementary teachers, for example, are often the first ones to introduce the subject of slavery to their students. These teachers worry about exposing their students to racism and slavery in a way that does justice to the reality of the institution but is also age-appropriate. For middle and high school teachers, the challenges are different. These teachers worry about reinforcing stereotypes or creating divisions within their student populations.
Added to all of these concerns are the lack of time that any teacher has with his or her students and the priority of preparing for high-stakes tests. We ask a lot of our History and Social Studies teachers every day. When we ask them to teach students about American slavery, however, we ask even more of them. As a resource, EDSITEment addresses many of the problems associated with teaching slavery. EDSITEment includes slavery in lessons across the grade levels and discusses the subject throughout the American History timeline. In addition, the interdisciplinary approach of many of the lesson plans fosters collaboration among teachers in different subject areas. Because of its integration of slavery into many different parts of the website, EDSITEment presents a model for how the subject of slavery can be integrated into American history classrooms in a way that represents the diversity of American experiences. It is beneficial to discuss some of the opportunities that EDSITEment’s lesson plans on slavery present to teachers and offer a few suggestions for the future of the site’s treatment of this important subject.
Many of the challenges to teaching slavery can be met by marshalling the appropriate resources to address the topic. One of the most important products that EDSITEment offers to teachers is the vast array of resources compiled on the site. EDSITEment’s lesson plans on slavery incorporate documents and images from the Library of Congress’ American Memory website, University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South, George Mason University’s History Matters, and PBS’ Africans in America, to name just a few. These are all wonderful resources but the very thing that makes them so wonderful, the vastness of their collections, can also make them difficult to use. Without a clearly defined search and directed research, users can get lost in these websites for hours, examining an array of interesting documents without finding exactly what they need.
With EDSITEment’s lesson plans, the appropriate resources are already identified. For example, in a high school lesson plan entitled, “Slavery’s Opponents and Defenders,” which is part of a larger unit on growing sectionalism before the Civil War, students are asked to complete a graphic organizer analyzing different arguments for or against slavery. While the structure of this lesson is fairly straight-forward, it is also very sophisticated, requiring students to analyze primary source documents and discuss the documents in relation to one another. The beauty of this lesson plan for teachers lies not only in this sophistication but also in the fact that EDSITEment has identified multiple online speeches or excerpts of speeches that work for this activity. By offering a variety of different sources from figures such as John Calhoun and Frederick Douglass, EDSITEment has removed hours of tedious research in the planning process while still giving teachers a choice of which sources will be the best “fit” for their classroom’s student population and skill level.