Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War

Edited by Adam Sanchez

Review by Aleisha Forbes

     First, I want to state that I am reviewing this book from three perspectives: from the standpoint of an educator with an advanced certificate in Secondary Education, as a historian with a master’s degree in History, and as an African American woman. This book, Teaching a People’s History of Abolition and the Civil War, is essential for various reasons. Primarily it pushes students to challenge their assumptions about enslavement and the response to the question of “who freed the slaves?” Students are taken on a journey in which they recognize the agency of the enslaved while dispelling the “Great Man” narrative that names Abraham Lincoln the “Great Emancipator.” Finally, this book aims to be encouraging and uplifting by promoting the possibility of social change by often overlooked historical actors. It inspires students to recognize their parts in resisting unjust authority figures in their own lives.

     Although this book may seem idealistic in its aims, it takes a very systematic approach to increasing student engagement when dealing with a polarizing segment of American history. The authors aptly include poetry and art, along with primary and secondary source analysis. The book offers units of varied lengths depending on what the teacher is able to implement in their curriculum. As a teacher with knowledge of the students in my classroom, I wouldn’t follow their prescribed trajectory completely. The lessons that seem most valuable from my perspective are lesson one: Frederick Douglass fights for freedom; lesson two: poetry of defiance; lesson five: raising the voices of abolitionists through art; lesson eight: a war to free the slaves; and lesson nine: who freed the slaves.

     The authors explains that if necessary, a teacher can begin at lesson eight, which is focused on Lincoln, in order to increase student “buy-in” to the unit’s topic. Lesson eight challenges the myth that the civil war was a war to free the slaves. It does this from an inquiry-based perspective where students investigate the statement that Lincoln and the North fought the Civil War to free the slaves. It also poses the question: How might U.S. history have turned out differently had the Southern states accepted Lincoln’s offer in 1861 to support the original 13th amendment to the Constitution which would have guaranteed slavery forever. This is a compelling question because in my experience, students are always interested in examining alternative versions of history and answering the question “What If?” Overall this lesson seems to be very engaging for students because it is discussion centered, however it needed more direct teacher modeling if this would be the first lesson in the unit. If presented to a classroom of diverse learners, the text would need to be chunked while defining challenging vocabulary for students and pushing them to write gist statements of what they read in their own words. This would ensure that they are able to grapple with the rigorous material of Lincoln’s inaugural address and the Emancipation Proclamation.

     A method that the authors included to assist diverse learners was “role-play. “Lesson seven, a role-play on the election of 1860, was in my opinion the most complicated lesson in the series. It was a multi-step lesson that required vast preparation on the part of the instructor. Although it is worthy because it will increase student involvement and ownership of their learning, the teacher may be apprehensive due to the theatrical nature of this lesson. The major benefit of this lesson is the fact that is outlines the campaign points of the various candidates. However, it assumes that all students will be compliant and get into character in order to achieve lesson outcomes. All in all, this lesson is a great support for students with varying learning styles who need a more hands on approach to learning, but it can be time consuming to implement properly.

     The most intriguing lessons were lesson two: poetry of defiance, and lesson five: raising the voices of abolitionists through art. Both lessons present the narrative of resistance in captivating ways. Lesson two uses poetry to challenge the notion that slaves were happy and protected while in the system of enslavement. Students examine quotes that illustrate several methods that the enslaved incorporated to resist the system of oppression. This lesson lends itself to the opportunity to make several text-to-world connections in the form of Negro spirituals such as “Wade in the Water” and popular movies such as “Beloved 1998” and “Birth of a Nation 2016.” Making these instructional decisions will assist students in the culminating poem writing exercise. It is a spectacular tool in shifting the narrative of enslavement for the next generation of students, especially with present day figures such as Kanye West spewing false accounts that slavery was a choice. The powerful quotes that are included in this text illustrate that the enslaved were far from mentally imprisoned. On the contrary, they were the architects in their own form of resistance and freedom.

     Lesson five brings this project full circle because it connects the voices of abolitionists through art with contemporary artists who use art as a form of opposition. Two of these pieces, Frederick Douglass’ “the meaning of July fourth for the negro” and Sojourner Truth’s “ain’t I a woman” are poignant pieces that are sure to draw out responses from students, especially in the era of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest and the growth of the Me-Too movement. In the social studies classroom, we often task students with image analysis of political cartoons and various art pieces, but there is value in having them create their own illustrations to powerful speeches that were aimed in invoking strong feelings from the reader. In my own classroom, I use illustrations for vocabulary practice and poster presentations. However, using it in response to famous historical pieces is an important instructional decision.

     All in all, this book is a valuable tool in a 21st century social studies classroom. It challenges students’ misconceptions and pushes them to be more civic minded. The use of role-play and the incorporation of art and poetry along with primary and secondary source analysis present a balanced approach to teaching about a difficult topic.

     In my own instructional practice, I have struggled to find effective lessons on slavery, abolition, and the Civil War. This book of lessons will allow me to incorporate new techniques into my teaching. My main concerns about the implementation of role-play activities, the chunking of challenging texts, definition of challenging vocabulary, and modeling of rigorous material are all instructional choices that a teacher can make to adapt the material to meet the needs of students in their classroom. This book will help Rethinking Schools achieve their goals of helping students realize the possibility of social change, especially on the part of ordinary citizens by analyzing the toppling of the institution of slavery by abolitionists and the enslaved alike. Students will be able to realize the impact they can make in the world, whether they aim to tackle school shootings, racism and injustice, or immigration and female empowerment in order to shift their outlook.

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