Give the Words a Face & the Face a Personality

Crafting study of the American system of slavery for my 15 year old sophomores is always daunting.  Slavery is an affront to human dignity.  Teenagers feel little connection to this level of depravity.  I wanted them to experience an emotional reaction to the antebellum slavery debate, rather than to just learn about it as an obligatory part of their studies.

To that end, today we did a document study of three different primary source opinions on the morality of slavery thanks to excerpts compiled by The DBQ Project.

The Sources

We looked at excerpts from:

The Task

  1. I divided the class into small groups of 3-4 students and each group was assigned one of the 3 documents. But they were told they could not read the documents yet.  We have been working all year on analyzing sources using the methodology recommended by the Stanford History Education Group.  Naturally the first step is sourcing so they looked at reliable websites like and for information about their figure's opinion on slavery and any actions they took to spread their beliefs prior to the Civil War.  As small groups they drafted a one paragraph summary.
  2. Next step was to find a portrait of their figure.  It is important for students to see the face of the historical figures they study.  Often it makes events and ideas more personal.  They saved a digital copy of these portraits for later use (see step 4 below).
  3. Finally, they got to read the document.
    • They read it once through.
    • They identified and looked up definitions of unfamiliar words and phrases.
    • They chose the thesis statement from the document and then rewrote it in their own words to show understanding.
  4. Lastly, I asked them to choose key words and phrases that really capture the mood, intent, and message of the document. They used Skitch to annotate the portrait with the words that were either spoken by their figure or were used to describe their figure. 

The Results

That last step really made the words and the people behind them come alive for my students.  One remarked about how Frederick Douglass's eyes in his portrait now looked as if they were accusing his audience of being hypocrites.

A student frustrated with George Fitzhugh's opinion said he looked like an oblivious wealthy blowhard, rather than simply a well-dressed gentleman.

And finally, they suggested that John Brown looked like a slightly deranged but determined man ready to do anything for his principles.

The portraits gave the documents identity, but the words from the documents transformed the portraits into real people.  They interacted with the men responsible for the words on the page and developed a relationship with them.  My hope is that my students did not merely learn history, they experienced history.


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