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Ashbrook MAHG Grad Uses Primary Source Documents to Teach the History of Slavery

A recent graduate of the Master of American History and Government (MAHG) program has written a capstone showing how to use primary documents to teach the history of slavery in the state of Georgia. Kelly Rodgers says that by teaching from original documents, teachers can help students examine objectively the difficult questions raised by this part of our national history.

Rodgers teaches history at Fulton Science Academy, a public charter high school in Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. At the same time she is a contributing writer for history textbooks. When she was asked to prepare a documentary resource on Georgia history for “Georgia Studies,” the social studies curriculum for 8th grade, she began to think about the particular need for primary materials on slavery.

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“Since I teach 11th grade American history, I’m always interested by the gaps in the knowledge that students bring to my class. They enter understanding simply that slavery is bad. They are hard put to explain why, other than to say that slaves had to work all day and didn’t get enough to eat.” One could fault some forms of free labor for similar reasons. They do not get at slavery’s fundamental injustice.

“Textbooks are unable to go into all the ramifications of a system that allows some people to own other people,” Rodgers said. Her lesson plans introduce students to the original charter for the Georgia colony, which prohibited slavery, and contrasts this with a petition from later settlers who asked that slavery be admitted. Reading these, students discover the political ideas that made slavery repugnant and the economic motives that made it attractive. Students wrestle with the contradiction between slavery and American founding principles when they compare the argument of Alexander Stephens, who defended slavery as the “cornerstone” of southern society, to Lincoln’s argument that slavery undermined democracy. When students wonder how it was possible to keep a group of people forcibly in bondage, they find answers to this question in the first-hand accounts of escaped slaves.

Discussing slavery in a mixed race classroom in the South can arouse tensions. “But not when you use original documents,” Rodgers says. “Then it’s not me talking about what slavery was like; it’s somebody else. Teachers can call up the voices of those who created, perpetuated and suffered under the institution and let them tell the story.”

Although designing her lesson plans for eighth graders, Rodgers used the primary sources she gathered to good effect in the standard and advanced placement US history classes she taught this fall. “Finally I had been able to put the material together to be able to teach this subject in depth.”

Rodgers says that through her study in Ashbrook’s MAHG program, “I learned how to teach from original documents, and I think I do it well. I love teaching this way. Almost every single day I use documents from www.teachingamericanhistory.org (Ashbrook’s online library of primary texts). It’s a phenomenal resource.”

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