A few years ago, for an anticipatory activity preceding Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I posed the question: “Why do you think racism is still a struggle in 21st Century America?” The following are actual student comments:
- Racism really isn’t a problem anymore.
- There are probably some places in the South where racism is a problem, but the news just blows it all out of proportion.
- King gave black people the same rights as white people, solving racism.
Are you feeling the same chagrin I did? The myth that racism is a fixture of a bygone era we can’t judge from our enlightened position in history prevents us from embracing “otherness” and from experiencing empathy central to civil discourse, grit, nonconformist citizenship, and so many other critical thinking and social being skills.
My predominantly white clientele too often has a narrow view of racism. Yet these are wonderful kids from forward-thinking families who absolutely embrace social justice and racial equality. My students of color, though typically small in number, have similarly passionate ideas about equality and justice, but also struggle with the historical fallacy that “back then everyone was fine with racism and slavery, so we can’t judge by our modern standards.” These lovely students try so hard not to be judgmental, that they miss the very kind of situation where judgement is needed.
Teachers working with nearly homogeneous student populations, whatever the demographic make-up, struggle to bring a more diverse worldview to life. Lack of diversity is often compounded by geographic and economic obstacles preventing students from experiencing different cultures or the sensation of being in the minority, experiences which build empathy and mindfulness. These kids often grow up feeling that the way their community operates and the way they navigate the world is the only way things will ever work.
Kids who enjoy social privilege without experiencing diversity may tend not to empathize with disenfranchised people groups – adopting the perspective that differences are distasteful and that people who experience less privilege must have made poor choices. Kids who struggle with obstacles like social marginalization or poverty may also lack empathy skills as they experience a loss of hope – believing (not without evidence) that the system will always victimize people like themselves, that they cannot effect change in their lives and communities, that college and economic well-being and participation in citizenship won’t work for them, that they can’t make a difference in the world. It is imperative that all young people access diverse stories to understand otherness and to develop empathy.
What can a classroom teacher do, especially when experiential opportunities are scarce? Well, we can start by myth-busting some of those superiority complexes and hopeless attitudes. What better way to bust a myth than with actual real-time data? That’s what the TV series Myth Busters does, and it’s a doozy of a show! In ELA, we ask students to not only comprehend a text, but also to analyze how an author communicates. We choose from complex texts that often explore a cultural phenomenon. While students deconstruct text, they grapple with its perspective on the human condition and consider their own sense of self within that larger picture. Kids can tackle a tough cultural phenomenon, like the persistence of racism in America, by deconstructing real time documents for and against slavery, the institution that legalized and moralized systemic racism in the U.S. And what better method for deconstruction than a little Myth Busters’ style approach?
I believe any teacher at any level in any subject area can firmly, thoughtfully, sensitively tackle controversial issues in a way that grows students’ empathy. My students must confront their thinking head on by tackling the myths that the origins of American slavery and racism went undisputed until the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement and that we can’t superimpose judgement on the behavior of our predecessors because they “didn’t know any better.” Huck Finn affords me a clear opportunity to teach in a meaningful, powerful way I hope will stick with my students better than any sermon I might deliver on the topic.
Below is a detailed inquiry style lesson designed to do just that in my 11th grade ELA class. Hopefully, I’ll get you thinking about doing some myth-busting in your own classroom. Don’t be afraid of controversy – help students learn to wield their inquiry and civil discourse skills. The value added is bravery: bravery to seek out understanding, to question the status quo, and to care about the bigger picture even when it is uncomfortable. If you have any suggestions for refining this lesson, applying it outside of HS ELA, or for better/more primary sources, PLEASE comment!
Thanks for reading,
MYTH BUSTING LESSON
Purpose: This lesson is intended to change the hermeneutic approach of students to cultural norms: how do I know a myth vs a truth, how can I tell the difference? Students will learn to critically consider multiple viewpoints from the time period, event, people group, or movement, paying close attention to analysis of counterarguments and exploration beyond their own comfort zones and personal values. By doing so, students will make informed determinations as to whether cultural norms are just, whether modern “myths” can be tested, and whether primary sources are valuable data sets for ethical determinations.
- How can I effectively analyze primary texts to test a theory/story about culture?
- When and how can I determine if a cultural norm is just?
- To what degree should my worldview (axiology) guide my inferences about evaluation of the cultural norms presented in historical texts?
- If I explore positions different from my current thinking, what problems and benefits will I encounter?
11-12 RIT6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness, or beauty of the text.
11-12 W1.b Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases
11-12 SL4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.
7 days during the Huck Finn unit
Primary Sources Supporting Slavery (choose 4-5):
- “The Mudsill Theory” James Henry Hammond 1858 speech http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3439t.html
- “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” Dr. Cartwright 1851 article http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3106t.html
- “The Universal Law of Slavery” George Fitzhugh 1849 essay http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3141t.html
- “The Industrial Resourses, etc.., of the Southern and Western States.” J. D. B. De Bow 1852 article http://chnm.gmu.edu/exploring/19thcentury/debateoverslavery/pop_debow.html
Primary Sources Opposing Slavery (choose 4-5):
- excerpts from Wendell Phillips’ 1861 speech; see Question 3 for a good excerpt: http://apcentral.collegeboard.com/apc/public/repository/ap07_englang_formb_frq.pdf
- Benjamin Banneker’s 1791 letter to Jefferson http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h71t.html
- “Only a Nigger” 1869 newspaper editorial attributed to Twain http://uwch-4.humanities.washington.edu/Tautegory/EBOOKS/twain/Only%20a%20Nigger.htm
- “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy” Twain’s 1870 article http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/onstage/playscripts/galaxy01.html
- “The Meaning of the 4th of July for the Negro” Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927t.html
- excerpts from David Walker’s Appeal 1829 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2931t.html
- “The Emancipation Proclamation” 1863 President Lincoln https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html or “Second Confiscation and Militia Act” 1862 http://www.ourdocuments.gov/print_friendly.php?flash=true&page=&doc=35&title=War+Department+General+Order+143%3A+Creation+of+the+U.S.+Colored+Troops+%281863%29
- Hannah Townshend’s 1846 pamphlet http://www.upworthy.com/this-1846-pamphlet-wants-your-kids-to-explain-to-you-why-slavery iswrong?c=utw1&utm_content=buffer1487b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
- Samuel Sewall’s 1700 “The Selling of Joseph” essay http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=53&img_step=1&mode=dual#page1
Materials & Activities:
Day 1 Pose 2 hypotheses:
- the origins of American slavery and racism went undisputed until the Civil Rights Movement;
- modern Americans shouldn’t superimpose judgement on the racism of our pre-CRM predecessors since they didn’t know any better.
Have students move to the sign in the room that best fits their thinking about each statement (place “True” “Undecided” “False” signs up) – allow groups to explain their reasoning, then ask for a spokesperson from each group (students may change position). Explain that we need to test these 2 theories, and we will do it Myth Busters style. Ask for summary of what Jaimie and Adam do on the show (clarify). Watch a brief mini-myth , discuss & link “testing data” to “analyzing primary source documents.” Refer back to what we learned about HF context when we deconstructed Jim Crow & Mammy images: was everyone in favor of these caricatures? Remind kids of the tools they used to comprehend claims and draw inferences from these primary sources. Showcase the document selections for primary sources from the time period which support slavery – color code and pre-plan student reading groups so that ability levels, learning styles, and personalities will be mixed for tomorrow’s discussion.
Remind students to take copious, color-coded notes to prepare for group discussion tomorrow. Make Myth Busters Discussion ?s accessible. [I use “How to Mark a Text,” an excerpt from Mortimer Adler’s book to guide annotations] Students get started independently. Last, do a “Mirror” reflection in which students write a ? they have for me about the hypotheses or the primary source they are reading on 1 side of a notecard and answer a ? I put on the board on the other side (I might ask a ? to check comprehension or strategy application, or I might ask a ? in anticipation of the next day’s activities). They hand me the “mirror” on their way out – I answer ?s briefly on the card.
Day 2 Give back the “mirrors,” then ask the 3 most common (or interesting) ?s & have students partner-share for 1 minute on each. Students will work in their color groups to thoroughly vet each primary source. There should be as many discussion ?s as there are groups. Make each Discuss Slavery Myth ? extra large and colorful. Students move into “Q&A format” (small group circle discussion) and each group receives a ?. They have 5 minutes to discuss the ?, adding to their annotations in anticipation of a journal response. Set a timer and wander, enjoying the awesomeness of growing insights and mistake making – validate, steer, question, validate, repeat. Every 5 minutes, rotate ?s and reset timer. Next, students journal for 5 minutes to summarize their document and draw a conclusion about Hypothesis 1. Mix up the groups so that there are students from each color in each circle. Students share their journals; when listening, add 1 sentence stating the author and main point of each source they didn’t read. Students submit journals with annotations (Margin Notes Example); skim for misunderstandings or patterns to be addressed. Once students return to rows, engagement will be high and time will be low – put on your auctioneer’s voice and roll out the next set of texts (same #, same color-coding, new reader groupings), calling names for kids to come and get ‘em. Let them dive in if time allows.
Day 3 Address any misunderstandings, patterns, cool stuff from the journals/annotations (are they using their academic vocabulary? are they addressing both claims and style?) in a quick format. Divide into Q&A by color (new voices = new ideas) and use the same questions and timing. Wrap up with a journal + mixed group share. Students submit work. Reveal the Shout Out Formula assignment which will give kids the opportunity to showcase what they now think about both hypotheses, based on their primary source analysis. Model if needed, especially if group personality is shy – talk about succinct language, apt evidence, and GUSTO! Allow students to choose a partner and 2 texts (kids can trade texts, but have some extras on hand). If time allows, let them do some planning. End with a “Sticks With Me” reflection in which kids write and post on the board 1 ? or idea that will stick with them from the discussions today.
Day 4 Share from the journals, annotations, stickies. Give a quick mini-lesson on using academic vocabulary to articulate analysis, make a word bank together for logos and diction terms kids can choose from (claim, premise, evidence, reasoning, formal/informal, literal/figurative, allusion, imagery, caricature, tone, etc.) WORK! Put H2 on the board as a PRO/CON statement (plenty of space for each). E.g. “It’s unfair to judge past racism since people didn’t know better” vs “It’s fair to judge racism; it’s always unjust and people have always known it.” Do a “chalk talk” in which kids write a thought in support of or a ? that challenges each statement – let it get messy – Have them collect their favorite comments for the side they agree with into their journals (this may assist them with forming the final claim of their Shout Out).
Day 5 Kick off with a debate swap. Line up desks into rows facing each other. Have a kid from one side flip a coin (heads PRO, tails CON). Put up H2. Explain 1 side will argue PRO H2 and the other will argue CON; everyone speaks once to logically support their team’s claim using a text reference from ANYTHING pertinent (HF, previous texts or images, a recent current event if they can cite it, any of the primary sources). Reminders regarding civil discourse — winning team has the best CD & logic.
Argue for 5 minutes, then teams switch sides (pro becomes con, etc) for another 5 minutes. Identify winners after each round, let the winningest team choose the “work tunes.” Put the desks back, give a quick example of how to articulate text references into a spoken format without confusing your audience. Shout Out WORK! If time allows, end with a short kahoot on academic vocabulary.
Day 6 Reiterate or brainstorm tips for “how to give meaningful commentary on a colleague’s work.” Conduct a Shout Out “Peer Review” in which partners form quads and deliver their SO drafts while the other partnership scores them with a copy of the ShoutOUtScores B rubric. After each delivery, teams should discuss the scores as per tips. Now is the time to make any adjustments – create a SO schedule. Begin SOs. Students “snap” or “hiss” when they hear something well said (snap for “moves” and hiss for “provokes” sections). We show our love with a Hoo-Rah, 5 Finger Wave, or Drum Roll. SOs will take 2 days.
Day 7 Complete SOs. Conduct the vote around the room from day 1 again for each hypothesis, discussing whether the myth is busted or not. Students reflect in a journal on how the texts and SOs helped form their conclusion, on whether primary sources are worthy data sets for determining cultural phenomenon, and on what problems and benefits they encountered as a result of the exploration.
This lesson becomes a much-referred to experience & I sometimes incorporate it into the final unit assessment. E.g., synthesis (HFSynEssayRubric) essay or Socratic Seminar (Kristin Leong explains this beautifully here).