Blackout Primary Sources

If it had been possible for something to go viral in the late 1700s, Thomas Paine's Common Sense would have done that. His pamphlet was the catalyst that convinced a hesitant colonial public that rebellion for independence from the British Empire was the only answer.

Of course, language that was considered engaging and persuasive in the late 1700s is not necessarily the same language that 21st century teens find engaging. Without doing traditional document analysis, how can students see how important this document is?

As is often the case, I found inspiration from my PLN on Twitter. Greg Kuloweic and Lauren Putman were tweeting about blackout poetry, partly inspired by poet Austin Kleon
Lauren challenged her middle school students to blackout the Battle of Salamis, with impressive results.

Greg blogged about it and explained how to leverage iPads to complete and publish the project. He also took the project a step further and suggested a way for students to produce videos in which they explained their thinking and the meaning of their poem.

Making it a Work in My BYOD Classroom

After teaching my students essential Enlightenment ideas like social contract and consent of the governed, I introduced them to Thomas Paine and Common Sense. I gave them excerpts in groups of two. After an initial read through I told them about blackout poetry. Then they had the next 40 minutes of class time to circle and blackout their excerpts. They worked hard using apps like Educreations and Skitch.

First, they started marking words and phrases that stood out to them.
Then they started blacking out their excerpts. For some, this was hard. They even asked me if it was OK to cross out words. But if they made a mistake, their devices allowed them to go back and erase their work and change it. 
I had them screenshot every phase of their work and send it to me via email. As with our class philosophy, I wanted to publish their work. An ebook of poetry seemed appropriate. 

The next day students read their poems to the class. We then talked about the main ideas of their poems and figured out how Paine's Common Sense was linked with enlightenment ideas like social contract and consent of the governed. Here are our class notes.

Of course, publishing to our classroom alone isn't really publishing. So I sent parents the ebook so they could read their student's work. Parents wrote back that they liked the books and the opportunity to talk about them with their children.

I also shared our books with my PLN on Twitter, especially Lauren and Greg so that they could see how their ideas had an impact on my classroom. I heard back from them and a few others on Twitter who liked my students' work.

But the best response I got was...

Our poetry was noticed and republished by others! 


In the end, were the kids positively enthralled with blackout poetry. Well, no. But they had produced something. Their parents saw it and talked to them about their learning at home as a result. Now that we are in the midst of studying the American Revolution, nearly all of them have firmly grasped that the battles were not over taxes and money. They understand that the war was over representation and natural rights. In other words, through this activity and the publishing of the students' work, my classes learned the deeper roots of the American Revolution and continued a conversation about their learning outside of school.


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