This year in Grade 11 American History, students have been developing their knowledge and understanding of significant historical events by adopting a critical thinking framework that applies six historical thinking concepts:
- Historical significance
- Cause and consequence
- Historical perspective
- Continuity and change
- The use of primary source evidence
- The ethical dimensions of history
In order to practice and develop these historical literacy skills, we created a personalized sequences of learning that used a variety of teaching strategies and gave our students the opportunity to choose from a range of historical documents, events, figured, themes and final products based on their personal interest and individual learning style.
During a recent study of the African American Experience (1865-1965), students analyzed key events, figures and themes, ranging from the failed promises of Reconstruction to the struggle and hope characterized by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and its use of non-violent strategies, such as boycotts, marches and legal challenges to bring an end to systemic racism in the United States.
Students deepened their understanding of these events by focusing on the historical thinking concepts of applying the use of primary source evidence and analyzing multiple historical perspectives. They were given the opportunity to focus on these concepts in their Civil Rights Protest Song Assignment. This was a conversational assessment of learning that asked the students to prepare for and participate in a conversation about a civil rights protest song from the 1950s and 1960s. The students were given the opportunity to choose a protest song from a variety of musical genres (jazz, blues, folk, rock 'n roll) that was of personal interest to them. Some of the songs included Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Bob Dylan's "A Pawn in their Game," Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Happen," Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn," Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus" or Neil Young's "Southern Man."
There was also an extension opportunity for this assignment that allowed students to choose a protect song to analyze about the Vietnam War. Some of the songs included CCR's "Fortunate Son," Crosy, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio," Country Joe & The Fish's "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" and John Lee Hooker's "I Don't Wanna Go to Vietnam."
In order to prepare for this conversational assessment, the students were asked to annotate the lyrics of their chosen song by highlighting key events, figures, ideas and themes that they studied during our unit. They were also given a list of guiding questions to answer that allowed them to think critically about the larger themes of the course and communicate how the lyrics of the song could relate to any current struggle for rights that exists today - something that the majority of students successfully accomplished through their astute observations on parallels between Civil Rights issues and current events in Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement. Each conversation (which was about 5-7 minutes) was led by the teacher during which time we listened to the song in the classroom and the student answered the chosen guiding questions.
This assignment was a great example of how letting our students choose a topic based on personal interest and allowing them to demonstrate their critical thinking skills through an informal conversation with their teacher leads to an increased facility in making connections between issues that existed in the past and continue to persist today.