8A Protests Their History Textbook

This year, we piloted an online textbook for 8th Grade History. The text connects to Common Core standards, the National Council of Social Studies standards, and 21st Century Skills. The online text provides a foundation of content from which we have further investigated topics like the Constitution and Bill of Rights, westward expansion, immigration, industrialization, reform efforts, and slavery.

Our study of slavery took an interesting turn! We read the text, took notes, and discussed the material together as a class. Students had many questions about slavery that either were not addressed by the text, or were addressed in ways that did not reconcile with what they already knew. Once we were confident in our fundamental understanding, we began to curate our slavery museum. The slavery museum is an opportunity for students to investigate a topic of their choice (family life, spirituality, law, abolition, Jim Crow, resistance, or labor) using designated materials such as diaries, maps, legal codes, letters, pictures, and secondary sources.

The museum was fascinating. The students demonstrated interest, engagement, empathy, and understanding with their artifacts, research, and responses. Perhaps what was most rewarding to me, was their criticism of their textbook in contrast to what they learned in the museum. I had noted these inconsistencies in the text when I reviewed the section, but decided to facilitate, rather than direct, further questioning. Once the students raised their own protestations, we went back to review the textbook. Though the text provided essential background, it did not tell the complete story honoring the experience of slavery. This provided the students with a critical learning opportunity to ask questions, weigh the consequences of the choices made by the textbook publisher, and advocate for a more authentic representation. After three days of investigation and discussion, the students considered their options: they could ignore the inconsistencies, or they could advocate for a change. The following letter, written to the authors of the textbook, is the result of our comparison between the text and our independent research. The students collaborated to create a goal and an outline for their letter. Then they broke into groups to tackle each section. Finally, the students came together again to join their sections, make suggestions, revise for clarity, and complete a final edit.

 

Villa Academy 8th Grade History

5001 N. 50th St.

Seattle, WA 98105

 

Mr. Davidson and Mr. Stoff

Pearson Education, Inc.

1900 E. Lake Ave

Glenview, IL 60025

Dear Mr. Davidson and Mr. Stoff,

We are 8th grade students at Villa Academy in Seattle, Washington. We are writing because you have omitted important information on the topic of slavery in your online textbook, American History. We found it difficult to fully understand both the horrors and the long-term impact of slavery by reading the textbook alone. We feel we were deprived of the opportunity of understanding the aspect of slavery in America’s past. The sense of the chapter was that slavery just wasn’t that bad. After studying the lesson, we still did not know how awful the slaves were treated and how gruesome their situation was. The pictures you used made slavery look happy and joyful. The colors were bright and their clothes were never dirty. The slaves were always standing up straight, rather than bending over, laboring. These images made us think that the slaves’ work was easy. The pictures did not capture the grittiness and cruelty of slavery. For example, the photo of a slave’s house that you used looks like a nice cabin that you could rent for a camping trip. If you were to go to a different source, you would see that the houses were built poorly. They had holes in the roofs, they were tiny and ramshackle, and many families had to be crammed into them. The barns for plantation animals were better built than the slave cabins.

When you write things like, “Even the kindest slave owners insisted that their enslaved workers work long, hard days” (Lesson 7.2.4), you imply that some slave owners were kind. We understand that there were some who were kinder than others, but really, they were still slave owners and they still owned slaves. This sentence implied that we could ignore all of the horrible things that the slaves had to go through. Slave owners didn’t just insist that slaves do their work. They whipped, killed, raped, tortured, hung, starved, and abused the slaves if they didn’t do their work. We noted that your word choice was also questionable. Of 19th century territorial advance, you wrote, “In 1848, the Mexican War added vast western lands to the United States.” This implies a passive gift-giving, rather than a bloody war aimed at expansionism (Lesson 8.1.2). Finally, by underscoring Harriet Tubman’s lack of direct experience with slavery (Lesson 8.1.6), you undermine the value of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

You left out details regarding some very important topics. You failed to represent the cruelty and poor working conditions that the slaves lived in. Another thing you forgot to mention is the perspective and experience of the slaves. You could have included oral histories, diaries, and letters in your “primary documents” sections. Without these details, you paint an image of slaves who barely faced discrimination and lived healthy lives, and this isn’t the truth. The truth is that slavery was one of the darkest periods in U.S. history, and it needs to be represented as such. We would rather be informed that the era of slavery was terrible time in our history, than be given the impression that the slaves had easy work, were well-clothed, and lived generally happy lives despite being enslaved. These details made us wonder why the slaves rebelled in the ways that they did. The texts raise questions about why slavery was abolished if it helped the U.S. economy.

We think that you should rewrite the chapter to include all of the information that was missing. We think that you should add information about the slave trade and slave punishments, instead of briefly bringing up the punishments that the slaves endured. We think that you should talk about how slaves were lynched, whipped to death, and assaulted. We would appreciate it if you went into the fact that babies weren’t expected to live because of the poor medical conditions. We would like you to write about how before the cotton gin was invented, slaves would have to work at home after their long hours of labor on the plantation to clean the cotton. We also think that you should use more liberal language to honor the majority of students who truly desire to understand slavery’s legacy.

While we plan to investigate alternative texts for next year, we  also look forward to hearing your thoughts on our critiques of the online version of American History.

Regards,

8A History

Villa Academy

 

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