Students Learn Hidden History of Reconstruction May 22, 2017

Students Learn Hidden History of Reconstruction | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryThe 2016 U.S. presidential election has been likened to the attack on Reconstruction, a period when reactionaries organized to beat back measures that would extend equality and racial justice. It’s a history that gets short shrift in most textbooks.

As part of our campaign to encourage and support teaching Reconstruction, the Zinn Education Project posted a lesson by Bill Bigelow called “Reconstructing the South: A Role Play.” This role play engages students in thinking about what freed people needed in order to achieve—and sustain—real freedom following the Civil War. It is followed by a chapter from the book Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution on the possibility of a radically democratic land reform following the war.

We’ve been excited to hear from teachers about the impact of the using the Reconstruction role play. A teacher in West Virginia wrote,

The scenarios and questions really made our students use critical thinking skills, which is often a challenge. With this lesson, students can truly connect with the experiences of the freed slaves. For a time period that does not always get the coverage it deserves, this lesson is absolutely perfect. These materials have found a permanent home in my curriculum.

We’ve included more reflections below. Many of the comments provide insights into the “aha’s” students have as a result of studying the Reconstruction era and its meaning today.

Teachers who send us feedback receive a free copy of A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner.

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This was an excellent role play, which really got my students thinking about the varying perspectives in Reconstruction last week. After the enactment, we had a lengthy “debate” in which the students had to argue what the government should or should not do.

Students then were given the assignment to research the current immigration conflict and find opposing/varying attitudes today, especially focusing on refugees. We will follow this up next class.

These role plays can easily be tied to modern issues. —Marianne Boe, high school social studies teacher, Chicago, Illinois

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I used the “Reconstructing the South” role play lesson in both of my two U.S. history classes (both AP and on-level), and was so encouraged to see how engaged and interested the students were. Moreover, I was fascinated to see how differently the two groups reacted to the same role play.

In the AP section, the group as a whole struggled to balance the desire to enact as full equality as possible (not only political and social, but also economic) with the fears of backlash and terror. As a result, they initially took steps that reflected an extremely moderate, even conservative, approach to Reconstruction, and were later shocked to find that they had an even more moderate plan than the one actually enacted with help from the historical Radical Republicans. One student’s reflection paper included the following comment: “I realized that we had internalized a devotion to the idea of ‘moderation’ to such an extent that we ended up not even being as bold as the real Radical Republicans in history. There was a definite sense that we could and should do better, and we must have more courage in demanding necessary rights and change.”

In contrast, the on-level section were passionately egalitarian and radical, undaunted by fears of backlash, because they felt that Reconstruction was a perfect opportunity to use the federal government’s resources to strongly and boldly enforce their plans to redistribute land and enact suffrage immediately. A student commented, “I understand the fears about potential backlash, but we deeply believed that if Reconstruction had been more radical, more bold, and had done even more to solve the economic and class concerns shared by not only Blacks but also poor whites, Reconstruction could have continued on even in the face of extremism. We look at the lasting achievements like the public school system in the South as only one example of the kind of gift a more radical plan could have offered the cynics and opponents.” —Mordechai Rees, high school social studies teacher, Dallas, Texas

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It is important in my classroom to deal with Reconstruction due to the far-reaching implications it has throughout the entire existence of the United States to the current day. I used the “Reconstructing the South: A Role Play” activity to jump-start the entire Reconstruction unit. Students received the Freedmen/women sheet to set the scene for the topic, then we dealt with the problems of the era sheet.

Students felt like they could bring to class their own elements of past history, as well as the problems that freedmen/women faced during the era. The prompt allowed for student freedom, as I facilitated discussion around the room. Students enjoyed this but also looked to me for advice and with questions often. The discussion students had, once into each problem, was meaningful and addressed the major challenges many faced at the time. Every so often, I would also chime in and guide students toward insight they may have missed. Students really enjoyed the different nature of addressing history through this role play. They were able to critically think through the issues and struggled with others. After our role play, we continued to examine the role Reconstruction played in the post Civil War era. We examined its successes and failures, lastly touching on the ideas of mass incarceration and if Reconstruction truly was successful. —Alex Mayszak, high school social studies teacher, Moline, Illinois

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My student teacher and I recently used the Reconstruction role play with our 8th grade students. We only had to make minimal modification for this activity to work for middle school. We were genuinely amazed at the conversations our students engaged in. The scenarios and questions really made our students use critical thinking skills, which is often a challenge. Another bonus of these materials is that it covers Reconstruction in a way that students can truly connect with the experiences of the freed slaves. For a time period that does not always get the coverage it deserves, this project is absolutely perfect. These materials have found a permanent home in my curriculum.

Thank you for your time and effort in creating thought-provoking materials for our students. —Amy Emmerling, middle school social studies teacher, Berkeley Springs, West Virginia

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While preparing to teach the Reconstruction unit this fall, I came across a powerful statement [from the intro of “Reconstructing the South: A Role Play”] regarding the typical treatment of the period in most high school classrooms: “What kind of country is this going to be? This was the urgent question posed in the period immediately following the U.S. Civil War. When students learn about Reconstruction, if they learn about this period at all, too often they learn how the presidents and Congress battled over the answer to this question. Textbooks and curricula emphasize what was done to or for newly freed people, but usually not how they acted to define their own freedom.” Needless to say, these words inspired me to seek out other resources beyond my textbook in order to help answer that important question.

“Reconstructing the South: A Role Play,” by Bill Bigelow, helped inspire my students by engaging them in multiple roles and situations that brought to the classroom lived experiences. Instead of merely reading about the lived experiences, my students portrayed and thus, really began to examine their own perspectives and paradigms of their lives and those of others through this experience. In short, I believe it was a powerful and meaningful, learning experience for all of us. —Dr. James Gorman, high school social studies teacher, Tawas City, Michigan

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The material arrived just at the right time as I was getting ready to teach Reconstruction to my junior IB classes. I had them go through the first hand-out, then create characters (they really dived into creating authentic characters from the time), then we used the other material and had a good discussion during the role play. —Gordon Black, high school social studies teacher, Edmonds, Washington

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Pearl Jonas' students discussing the lesson | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryI implemented the lesson in my 9th grade African-American history classes. My students had previously engaged in Bigelow’s abolitionism role play and enjoyed the historical debates. Because of this experience, my students were prepared to engage in this lesson.

I split my class into three small groups of 10-12 each. In their small groups, students spent two class periods discussing the six situations. At the end, each group created plans for Reconstruction to propose to Congress. We evaluated the plans through the lens of healing and justice. As an introductory lesson to the Reconstruction era, students were able to grasp the complexity of trying to reunite the nation. —Pearl Jonas, high school social studies teacher, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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The lesson “Reconstructing the South: A Role Play” is excellent for exploring the Reconstruction time period. Too often, periods of American history like this one are presented without relevant connections to today’s world, which make our not-so-distant past seem like ancient history to young learners.

The role play offers students the opportunity to see the importance of the time period: how much help formerly enslaved people needed, how formerly enslaved people were offered opportunities like never before, and how the country had the opportunity to make major changes in equality and civil rights. This has led to discussions about today’s racial issues of police, the justice system, employment, housing, etc., and, as a result, I have been able to open discussions on issues relating to federal powers versus states’ rights when it comes to civil rights. This is a wonderful lesson I plan on using again and again. —Andrew Bushor, high school social studies teacher, Detroit, Michigan

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I recently used a modified version of this lesson in my 9th grade U.S. history course. This simulation led to an “Aha!” moment once the students realized that freedmen and freedwomen were not actually invited to participate in any of the decision-making processes following the Civil War. This then primed students for an inquiry into what extent life changed for freedmen and freedwomen. I used an excerpt from W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Propaganda of History” to help students frame their thinking and analyze historical evidence in terms of its “truthfulness” in representing the reality of the experiences of freedmen and freedwomen during the Reconstruction Era. —Rachel Scott, high school social studies teacher, Bronx, New York

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This lesson absolutely helped to enhance our understanding of the Reconstruction Era. While I have always spent a fairly substantial amount of time teaching Reconstruction, this lesson brought in new information both for me and my students.

Events from this era typically come up all throughout our year as we discuss civil rights and how Jim Crow Laws and segregation took hold for such a long time in our history, so when given the chance to look back on what freedmen could have done differently, many students, I would say the majority of students, wanted to demand the full distribution of land from the government. I think many saw it as a way to right the wrongs and try to change history for the better.

What I appreciated most about this activity is that it created more questions for my students as we finished up. They began to think about just how challenging this time period was and I think gained a better understanding of why this era needs to be studied closer and revisited throughout our year of U.S. history together. —Charlie Carr, high school social studies teacher, Plymouth, Minnesota

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I teach an Africana Studies class for high school students at a city college. In my classes, we always emphasize the symbiotic relationship between history and the present. When I think of “Aha” moments in the classroom, I’m reflecting on how we used the lesson to draw attention to severe inequities then, as opposed to now. Though they have a lot of anecdotal knowledge, this lesson provided my students with a raw, up-close-and-personal simulation of the challenges faced by newly freed Black Americans. We made charts and vision boards in which students got to animate and share their thoughts and strategies for survival then and now. The visual takeaways were most valuable.

Another powerful lesson was when two of my students shared stories about their OWN families—whose stories had been passed down from the last 1890s. These two students were able to share copies of letters and other material from their own families, who had roots in Mississippi and Tennessee. For my high schoolers, this proved to be most valuable because they were able to connect the lesson with the historical account and with their everyday lives. They actually began to see their own classmates in a way that may not have been possible without the creative stimulation of this rich lesson. —Lasana Kazembe, high school social studies teacher, Chicago, Illinois

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Joshua Watne's students discussing the lesson | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryFor this simulation, the students were paired into groups of 3-4 as they made decisions on the future of Reconstruction. This made it difficult for students to come to an agreement on the solution for each of the six Questions/Problems presented, because each member brought a differing perspective/values.

For example, the group of students in the first attached picture had an argument over the question of protection for the freedmen and women. One solution proposed by a group member was to revoke rights of gun ownership for those involved with the rebellion. Although most of the group agreed with this idea, there was one student who believed it was too radical and “resentment” would be the only major success of that policy.

After class was done, I overheard the student (who disagreed with taking away gun rights for Southerners) in the hallway complaining still, how she cannot believe her group took that position. She said, “If we go to war again because of this, it is not my fault because I didn’t believe in that policy. I told them it was a bad idea and they didn’t listen!” I was happy to hear that the content from class was still on her mind, after the lesson had ended.

Joshua Watne's students discussing the lesson | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's HistoryAs for the students in the second attached photo (zoomed out view), there were some kids who finished their solutions early and were wandering around the classroom to see what other groups came up with. You will see a blonde hair student standing by another group of four. She dropped by to see what they came up with on the topic of consequences for Confederate leaders. She could not believe that they planned to have the leaders executed. She went on to inform them that harsh retaliation may occur from other Southerners if they carried out this policy. The group did not come to an agreement with this other perspective. They believed that as long as Confederate leaders survived, there was potential for danger. They even argued (using their present-day knowledge), that groups like the KKK, may have ceased to exist if these leaders were disciplined harshly. Once again, these students continued this conversation in the hallway later in the day.

The students love to participate in these types of simulations and I would have to say that this one sparked an interesting discussion.

Thank you for the engaging activity! —Joshua Watne, middle school social studies teacher, Thief River Falls, Minnesota

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I used the lesson plan, “Reconstructing the South: A Role Play,” in my pre-AP 8th grade U.S. history course. I began the lesson by reading the short article titled “Freedmen and Women” and had the students number the problems African Americans faced after the war. I then explained that the students were all Freedmen and women on a committee formed to voice their concerns to their Congressmen. The students initially met with their shoulder partner to figure out how they would solve the problems from the perspective of a Freedman or woman. The students had great conversations. When a student said that Confederate leaders should be executed and others should be stripped of their political power, a group member replied, “But wouldn’t that only make Southerners hate us more?” Another student wanted to send troops into the South to protect the Freedmen and women, and someone pointed out that sending the military to the South would be expensive. She questioned where the Union would get the money to send these troops.

After meeting with their shoulder partners, I had the students meet as a class. I followed the lesson plan and told my students that they as a group needed to come to a consensus regarding these questions and that I would not interrupt or provide any assistance. I also told the class that they needed to decide as a group the “rules of engagement.” The students decided to pick one person to lead the committee, and that student did a great job.  I do not think that this lesson would have gone as well as it did without the leadership of this one student. My students voted on the proposals, with majority-rule winning. Some of their winning ideas consisted of putting the Confederate leaders on parole and moving them to the North to “watch them,” redistributing small portions of the land so slaves could have some economic freedom, and passing an amendment stating that no state can secede from the Union. Although some of their agreed-upon proposals were a little strange (such as moving all of the Freedmen and women to Canada), the students did participate in the role-playing activity. At the end of the lesson, one student asked if we could do more lessons similar to this one because she “had fun.” —Annie Williams, middle school social studies teacher, Springdale, Arkansas

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