A Roundtable of Reformers

October 10th, 2016

How would historical figures solve today’s conflicts and problems around the world? Sarah Cooper is back with a blog post about how her students researched reformers and wrote about how their chosen figures would change the world today. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine and she teaches English and history at Flintridge Preparatory School in California.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionA Roundtable of Reformers
By Sarah Cooper

How would labor agitator Florence Kelley, author Barbara Ehrenreich and reformer Helen Keller solve the Syrian refugee crisis?

How would Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court plaintiff Fred Korematsu and environmentalist David Brower address gun laws?

My eighth graders asked themselves these questions in groups after each of them researched an American reformer.

In previous years, students had simply presented a few facts about their reformers to the class and also played part of a song that echoed the reformer’s ideals (Katy Perry’s “Roar” for Carry Nation or “We Shall Overcome” for Pete Seeger, for example).

The songs were fun to hear, but even these short presentations seemed to drag out over several days of class time.

This year I wanted students to spend these days being more hands-on: learning about other students’ reformers and then applying this knowledge to modern-day problems, many of them similar to ones their reformers had tackled.

So I created student groups, roughly categorized by the kind of reform their person did.

For instance, Bob Dylan, Sojourner Truth, Marian Wright Edelman and Rachel Carson came together as people who used their words for change.

Here are the directions I gave one Tuesday in class, after students had read through each others’ short research papers.

  1. Now, make a list (as long as you want!) of 3+ current issues you think your reformers would like to explore together. Feel free to flip through your current events notes and articles to help you brainstorm. Write down everyone’s ideas without judging or commenting.
  2. Once everyone has shared ideas, go back through the list you’ve generated and talk about which issue might be the most interesting for your reformers (you!) to research tonight and talk about solving tomorrow. By the end of class, decide on one issue on which everyone will find a different article tonight.

That night, students texted or created a Google Doc to make sure they found different articles on their group’s topic.

In class on Wednesday, they first wrote individually for 5-7 minutes on why they chose this particular article and what their reformer would think about it, and then they shared the articles with their group.

After that, students brainstormed at least six solutions or approaches that their reformers might use to tackle the issue. They honed in on one approach they liked best and developed a plan with at least several steps.

The plans ran the gamut on the spectrum of intricacy, radicalism and violence.

One example came from students who thought that, if alive today, their reformers – Eleanor Roosevelt, Carry Nation and Jane Jacobs – would have fought for “women’s right to an abortion.” Their steps read:

  • Have strong debates all over America – in the government and in cities, through town hall meetings.
  • Use intimidation tactics – psych out your opponents.
  • Be the voice of larger grass-roots organizations.
  • Hold protests in front of opponents to gain awareness.
  • Have fundraising events.
  • Build upon Roosevelt’s government connections and Jacobs’ grassroots movement connections.

A group of radical reformers – John Brown, Margaret Sanger, Dolores Huerta and Carry Nation – attempted to solve the Syrian refugee crisis with persuasion and intimidation:

  1. Start by hosting rallies and sending letters to non-conforming countries (countries that aren’t letting in refugees).
  2. Gather a small army of protesters.
  3. Go on a boat with an army to Syrian refugees and take the refugees to countries like Britain. Also use other forms of transportation.
  4. Smuggle in refugees while fighting security.

Obviously these solutions are only skim the surface of how one would tackle an issue. What I liked about them was that the students really had to ponder different methods of change and figure out which historical tactics would work equally well now.

The Greensboro Four’s nonviolent sit-ins? Still a promising tactic. John Brown’s violent attempt to seize a federal arsenal? Maybe not as effective.

Next time I hope to ask students to create a longer action plan and then have their classmates vote on which one they thought would be most realistic and effective.

Such a a mini-negotiation session would imitate the process their reformers went through, creating a grass-roots feel in our own classroom.

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