1 Reply Latest reply: Apr 6, 2013 11:03 AM by joe_phelan RSS

How do you discuss controversial figures in your classroom?

NaomiAtAmericanHistory Novice
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When it comes to controversial figures in history--John Brown and Andrew Jackson, among others--how do help students see multiple sides to the story? 


Recently, Jason Fox, a teacher we worked with during our summer institute shared with us a video he had made of a lesson in his classroom that he called The Time Trial of Andrew Jackson.  This lesson was based on a series of theater programs at our museum called Time Trials, in which the legacy of a controversial figure is put on trial and visitors must debate how history should remember, for example, Benedict Arnold or John Brown.  In his lesson, Jason asked students to debate Jackson's legacy by interacting with the fictional Jackson (Jason in costume).  He found the experience to be such a positive one that he plans to do similar trials of LBJ and Nixon this year, and shared with us that, "[u]ltimately, this lesson forced my students to analyze Jackson as a real human being with all of the faults and qualities that he possessed. Even weeks later, students would come to me and ask how Jackson would have felt about the bevy of caretaker presidents who followed him, or what he would have done if he were president in 1860 instead of James Buchanan.  In my AP class, students often focus on simply getting a grade and moving on while missing the real goal of education for its own sake.  This lesson forced my students to apply historical knowledge and rewarded them intrinsically...This lesson...forced my students to see an extremely polarizing historic figure in a truly human light."


When we have presented this program to teacher groups, other educators have suggested teaching about the explorers or Roger Brooke Taney in this way.  Even without the theatrical portion, asking "How should this figure be remembered?" may elicit some intriguing responses.  So, how do you teach about controversial figures in history? Would you consider hosting a time trial in your classroom? If so, which figure would you put on trial?


You can watch a clip of Jason presenting his lesson on YouTube, or read his blog post about the lesson (which includes the video clip).



National Museum of American History

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