Week in Class: Week 33 Primary Documents


Since we’ve finished with our Language Arts text for the year, I’ve been trying to implement a “replacement” unit for Common Core featuring closed readings. The examples modeled centered on short stories or poetry, but I’ve opted to use primary documents. One of the best resources I’ve found is an older compilation of “essential” speeches, and writings edited by Diane Ravitch, called The American Reader. At this point many of you are probably horrified that I’m using a Ravitch text for Common Core. Perhaps even Dr. Ravitch is just as flabergasted.  Be that as it may, I here is what happened.

A bit of background. We’ve already studied about the abolitionists movement in the U.S. by watching the first episode of the PBS documentary The Abolitionists. We’ve discussed the issues as part of that. The lesson included John Brown’s “Last Statement to the Court” and the first page or so of Frederick Douglass’ “Independence Day Speech at Rochester”. I read them. They really seemed not to get the point. Brown’s text is pretty accessible, but the Douglass piece required me to stop and explain.

Then I finished showing the second half of The Abolitionists. Fortunately, we’d left off from our earlier viewing a few month’s back just at the point where Frederick Douglass is meeting with John Brown, who is trying to enlist Mr. Douglass’ assistance in what will become the Harper’s Ferry raid. We watched the video through the attempted raid, the arrest, conviction, and hanging of Brown, and Douglass’ flight to Canada to escape prosecution as an “accomplice”, and later finished with the civil war, emancipation, and reconstruction.

Common Core wants students to learn through a variety of media, including video resources, but I don’t get the sense that they really understand how this can best be done. The applicable standard seems to be CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7 Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

First, video is not just visual information. What made this video work was the storytelling. Without the video, these text would have made little sense to my students. They didn’t just integrate visual information, they integrated a context and narrative that helped give meaning to the words on paper.

The next thing that I did, was asked the students to come up with questions based on the text and video in their groups. I have them use Quick Flip Question books, and tell them which level to start with. They did great with this, and a first glance of their answers look okay. Some great responses, some okay, and just a few off the tracks.

Below are the questions they came up with:

1. What is the relationship between Frederick Douglass and John Brown? Be sure to cite evidence from the video.
2. Do you think that John Brown should have been convicted, why or why not? Please give details in your argument.
3. Which speech was better, Frederick Douglass’ or John Brown’s? Please include details from their speeches.
4. Do you agree with the violence that John Brown was trying to create, why or why not? Please give details in your argument.
5. Was there an alternative to John Brown’s plan? Please give details in your argument.
6. Are there other ways that Frederick Douglass could have chosen to express his anger with slavery in his speech? Please include examples from the speech.

Image credit: 33 by Chris, on Flickr

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