The U.S. Constitution and Slavery: Developing and Reflecting Upon an Academic Conversation

The U.S. Constitution
The U.S. Constitution

Content: For the Social Studies/Language Arts 8th grade class, over a single block period (2 hours), students will be able to read persuasive pieces, annotate them, use an academic conversation template, have a small-group conversation, reflect and write about their conversation, and generate an individual position. These activities will be based on two short excerpts from authors with opposing views regarding the Constitution’s initial position on slavery. The content will surround the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause, Slave Importation Clause, Fugitive Slave Clause, and Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments. The skills will be critical reading, writing, collaborating, and reflecting, and generating a position. The above skills are tied to RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.5, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.8, SL.8.1, SL.8.2, and WHST.6-8.9 in the Common Core standards.

Process: As for the process, the teacher will use the projector and the class will collectively read out loud and annotate the two pieces. The teacher will scaffold the annotations as necessary. To help the students get started, the teacher will also go over a template on starting and continuing an academic conversation, using both the projector and individual copies of the template students can bring with them to their small groups. Following the large-group activity, students will be sorted into small groups of 4-5 to develop ideas in response to the excerpts. After small-group exchanges, each individual student will reflect in writing on the different ideas and generate her or his own position. Before this lesson, the students will have already learned or reviewed the contents of the Constitution, a timeline of the era and its events, and traditional viewpoints surrounding personhood and representation, as well as have completed a written reflection in the past. The first excerpt will be from Charles A. Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States and the second excerpt will be from American Thinker’s “The Constitution Did Not Condone Slavery.” The pieces are intentionally from more extreme viewpoints to avoid students simply agreeing with the author and instead to inspire a dialogue followed by individual reflection and decision-making. Connecting prior knowledge of the history and beliefs regarding slavery, students will be able to progress from large-group annotation, to small-group discussion, to individual reflection and analysis.

George Washington on his Mount Vernon plantation with slaves.
George Washington on his Mount Vernon plantation with slaves.

Product: From the reading, annotation, discussion, reflection, and analysis, the students will produce a written reflection on their academic conversation as well as a one-sentence individual position. The teacher will instruct and assess this lesson under the notion that an academic conversation has no right or wrong answers but is a process of learning, developing ideas, reflecting, analyzing, and creating. Students will be assessed according to their participation in the large-group note-taking and the small-group conversations, as well as their effort and completion of a written reflection and final 1-sentence claim. Students will also self-assess their overall level of participation and quality of reflection.

Evaluation: Ideally, this activity will allow each student to reach each level of Bloom’s Taxonomy to some extent. The large-group reading and annotating will be the bottom levels of remembering and some understanding, the template will lead the conversations upward toward more understanding, applying, and analyzing each other’s ideas, and the written reflection and 1-sentence final position will allow students to reach analyzing, evaluating, and even creating. The students do not have a choice regarding the lesson’s activities, but they do have a choice regarding their own pace throughout the process. If some students need to take longer to go over the class notes, they can and will be sorted into a small group when they are ready. If some students take longer with their conversation, they will be given time (within reason) to reach a satisfying conclusion. If some students prefer to move on more quickly to their reflection and position-forming, they are free to do so, as long as they believe they have had an adequate conversation. The lesson is about going through a process of communication and collaboration to ultimately create independent thought. However, if a student does not ultimately reach an independent thought, he or she will not be penalized as long as the teacher can see participation and effort throughout the process. Should this process take longer than a 2-hour block period, the lesson will be extended.

The lesson study was extremely helpful in organizing my thoughts and creating an original and substantial lesson I will likely use as part of my unit plan. I appreciated how the lesson was divided into the components content, process, product, and evaluation. The four components make sense of the lesson and connect each part coherently into a whole.

I also very much enjoyed the process of peer review. My peers can see ambiguities where I have not. A fresh pair of eyes is not in my own head and will need as much clarification as possible to follow the lesson. I ended up adding to my lesson study to include those necessary points of clarification.

At the same time, I do not get as much out of peer review. Much of the time my peers are where I am (or close to where I am) in cognitive development and with student teaching preparation. My peers may not have as much insight as an instructor who has practiced in the field for a number of years. While I was glad to see and revise parts of my lesson study which needed further clarification, I am still left without knowing how feasible it is to pull this off, particularly with 8th grade students. I am optimistic, though!

2 thoughts on “The U.S. Constitution and Slavery: Developing and Reflecting Upon an Academic Conversation”

  1. This is a very comprehensive lesson and I think it could easily be accomplished in a 2 hour block. Your workflow seems manageable and it gives the students a variety of venues to share their thinking. I think for the purposes of the post, it might clarify things for the reader if you went back and added in some of the headings from the original assignment. Other teachers may want to borrow your ideas and it will help them see the various elements of the lesson.

    Now the content: Current events have created a heightened awareness of the racial divide in America. Much of it has been divisive, but this lesson can provide historical roots so that students can see that the legacy of racism goes all the way back to the founding fathers.

    You might find some useful strategies in this approach: Structured Academic Controversy It has some good protocols for addressing controversy and an nice sample lesson – Was Lincoln a Racist?

    That will require you to give the students some contextualization. How do we gauge 18th century attitude toward race from the vantage point of the 21st century? How could Jefferson pen “all men are created equal” while fathering children from his black slave?

    This will be a very timely and important lesson.

  2. I agree with Dr. Pappas that this lesson is very timely. Not only could you link it to modern day issues of racism in terms of police brutality, but a discussion of the fourteenth amendment could also be linked to the issue of immigration, birthright citizenship, and the current debate over whether that should remain part of our American experience. I think if more students were taken through an academic conversation on the 13th and 14th amendments that made them relevant to the way they live today, more people may feel a sense of urgency when such things in political danger.

    In terms of the lesson I really love the way you scaffold. It is difficult to account for all of the steps a student will need in order to be ready to analyze documents and arguments about them, but I think you did a really nice job here. I can see this working in any secondary classroom, with more or less guidance as needed. I am personally going to try and use a process similar to this to take my students through primary sources documents.

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