"Why does this stuff matter?"
"Why should I care?"
Questions like these have accosted most instructors during their teaching career. It can be especially challenging to show students in social studies classes the relevance of what they perceive to be centuries-old clumps of dates, events and timelines. Students in many classrooms experience "none of the questioning, argumentation, and wrestling with the past that so marks the vigor and fecundity of history as a disciplinary practice," as Bruce Van Sledright has noted. "All acquisition of others' ideas about what the past is and no participation in the activities that produce those ideas in the first place leaves them largely empty headed and seat-twitchingly bored."1
The research of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen shows that Americans' connection to history is strongest when they can locate a personal point of entry: "Many told us they wanted…to reach into history by reaching outward from their own lives. They wanted to personalize the public past." 2 Educational theorists have also shown that constructivist approaches to teaching—emphasizing students' active production of knowledge through inquiry and analysis—are typically more engaging to students than traditional approaches centered on lectures and quizzes. How can educators take these lessons into account and awaken students to the fun of historical exploration and the pertinence of the past to the present?
This challenge was especially daunting to us as we began developing an educational web site about the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade in the United States. Too many of us assume that the story of slavery is ancient history with little relevance today, and in the northern United States, may also wrongly assume that this was someone else's history—the myth that slavery was purely a Southern phenomenon. To be effective, the site would need to avoid teaching this history as if it were a distasteful but nutritious vegetable—the "eat your spinach, it's good for you" approach to education that is often taken (unsuccessfully!) in our public schools.
Facilitating a locally rooted understanding of the global impact of slavery is central to the mission of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, at Yale University. The global narrative of this history begins on the local level, in our own backyards: that's the message behind Citizens All: African Americans In Connecticut, 1700–1850, a website launched in summer 2007 in conjunction with the UNESCO Transatlantic Slave Trade Education Project. Developed with the Yale Center for Media and Instructional Innovation (CMI2), the site aims to teach middle- and high-school students about African Americans' struggles for citizenship and to stimulate their desire to engage in local historical research.
In the video introduction to module one, "Enslaved Africans in the Colony of Connecticut," David Blight, Yale Professor of American History, sits in the restored slave quarters of the Bush-Holley House in Greenwich, Connecticut and ponders the lives of people who once lived there. Reading the will of David Bush, which bequeaths six people of color among his other possessions, Blight raises one of the paradoxes of the slave system: these people are recognized as named members of the family household, and at the same time are defined as articles of property equivalent to oxen. "How did African American slaves actually live?" Blight asks. "How did they spend their daily lives? What kind of life could they create? What did they talk about?" Rather than provide answers, the video introduction tries to provoke students' curiosity to become researchers themselves.
We searched the Readex digital collection America's Historical Newspapers for primary documents that might contribute personhood, complexity and interest to the local history under examination. Why not allow the voices of Connecticut citizens of that bygone era to speak for themselves? From Connecticut regional newspapers, we culled a selection of 18th-century advertisements for the sale of slaves and the capture of runaways. The slave ads connect the real, human presence of people held against their will, in lifelong bondage, with the crucial place of the institution of slavery in the American economy. Close analysis of the ads also reveals some of the paradoxes and contradictions of the slave system, and our hope was that students using the website might learn to be historians by studying these resources.
Our hopes were answered when an interdisciplinary team of Greenwich High School teachers, led by Eleanor Ritch and Michael Galatioto, designed a summer-school research experience about northern slavery, for which Greenwich students would receive advanced-placement credit. Together with fellow instructor Laura Blumenthal, they combined analysis of website documents with field site visits and historical presentations into a multi-week practicum culminating in student-driven projects.
Teacher and team co-leader Ms. Ritch describes one student's project based on slave advertisements selected from Early American Newspapers:
Elizabeth Barrett was interested in researching the publication of slave sale advertisements, slave insurance advertisements and runaway slave advertisements printed in Connecticut newspapers in the latter half of the 18th century. Liz noticed how the northern media ran advertisements that ironically humanized the enslaved people by providing details about their clothing, physical appearances and personalities—and simultaneously condoned their status as property by putting specific monetary values on their lives. As a result, the advertisements both humanized the enslaved people mentioned, and upheld the idea that slaves were property protected by the Fifth Amendment.
The advertisements' success in sparking this student's curiosity led us to develop a new learning exercise for the "Documents and Activities" section of module one, which we hope will be useful to teachers, students and also members of the general population who may initially feel ill-equipped to analyze primary historical documents. The new activity uses one particular ad, from a 1764 issue of The New-London Gazette, to show how readers might begin analyzing a document of this type.
The activity encourages readers to begin by jotting down questions raised by the ad, and once a particularly interesting question is chosen, to extend that question into a series of broader questions. The idea is to engage readers with one provocative yet manageable document, and then help them broaden their curiosity to include other documents and larger issues. Ideally, this wider perspective will allow the reader to build a conceptual bridge linking the historical specificities of the past with issues and events that face us in the present. This analytical process—starting locally and then pursuing connections to a broader set of historical contexts—in effect encapsulates the modus operandi of Citizens All as a whole.
In direct contrast to the low mental nutrition that a rote memory instructional approach delivers, Citizens All attempts to reawaken learners' untarnished curiosity by starting in their own backyards and providing resources to extend their interest further. The website's Connecticut Slave Sale and Runaway Slave advertisements provide an excellent launching pad for stimulating students' desire to learn. Offering intriguing clues to the everyday life and characteristics of enslaved people during this time period, these advertisements encourage students to analyze both explicit and implied information about the past that calls into question comfortable assumptions about our local and national history.
1 Bruce Van Sledright, "Why Should Historians Care about History Teaching?" Perspectives Online (Feb. 2007), retrieved Nov. 7, 2007 from this website
2 Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past (New York: Columbia U.P., 1998) p. 115.