Doing the Work of Historians

11th grade US History teacher Pete Bonds has long been puzzled with some aspects of traditional history instruction: “We ask math students to do math, like mathematicians; we ask science students to do science, as if they are scientists. But then when they get to history class, we ask them to memorize a bunch of facts. Why aren’t we asking our students to do the work of historians?”

That query was the driving force behind a project recently completed by Mr. Bonds’ second period class. Mr. Bonds reflected that teaching about slavery has long been challenging. The impersonal lists of facts and numbers don’t provide a sense of the lived experience of so many millions. To bridge that divide, his students dug deep into the slave narratives compiled by the Federal Writers Administration in the 1930s.

The first task with which his students were faced was to contextualize and understand the biases latent within the narratives. As Charles Bell explained, these documents, important as they are, have some inherent flaws. “One problem is that the interviewees were generally around 90 years old, while the interviewers were all white. Therefore, the former slaves may not have remembered everything as clearly as they might have decades earlier, and they might also have felt uncomfortable sharing the whole truth with a white person.” Charles also explained that the interviews were all conducted in the Jim Crow south during the Great Depression — life was hard for African Americans in that time and place, and many students were shocked to find that some former slaves — though by no means all– even looked back on their experiences with a touch of nostalgia.

After they gained an understand of the sources with which they were dealing, Mr. Bonds’ students did a brief write-up on their chosen person, pulled and contextualizing quotes from the interviews. Ward Carroll found the personal, in-depth look fascinating: “I looked at two former slaves, Louise Matthews and Sarah Douglas. Louise actually preferred slavery, and talked about how her former master treated her kindly. But Sarah was at the other end of the spectrum, and talked about being whipped and beaten. To read those things straight from the source was an opportunity I wouldn’t otherwise have had.” He said he also enjoyed learning about the experiences of slaves that are often lost in the textbooks, such as what medicinal treatments were available at the time, and what it was like when an enslaved family was split apart.

The final step in Mr. Bonds’ project was for the students to present to the public on what they had researched. To that end, his class used the corkboard in the main academic hallway, where they created a visually engaging display on their work. The centerpiece was a map of former slave states, with each county shaded differently depending on the percentage of the population that slaves represented in XXX. They students’ individual reports, augmented by quotes and pictures, were linked to the county from which the former slaves came from by lines which cut across the board and onto the map. On Thursday, May 17, 2018, they unveiled their creation in front of a crowd of students and teachers, and did a wonderful job of making their research publicly available and relevant.

Mr. Bonds’ class democratically selected the title of their project, and they landed on This Was America: Former Slaves Speak. The inspiration came from a recent song called “This is America” by the artist Childish Gambino — the theme of which is the continued racial strife in our country today. “I thought it was great that they were able to make that connection,” said Mr. Bonds. “Historians don’t just sit around and read books and study — they draw upon the past, and interpret it for the present, for the living.” That was precisely what his project achieved, while providing students with a fresh and engaging way to experience the past. “It was hard work, but it was fun,” said Charles, while Ward reported that he “even found slave narratives from where I was from, in Raleigh, and was made to think differently about slavery and my own local history than I would have before this project began.”

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