Questions in African American History

One of the most important things we can do to help students exercise their creativity is to teach them how to ask good questions. In particular, if we want them to understand how creativity occurs within the disciplines, we need to help them think about the kinds of questions professionals might ask in the individual fields.

One of the places this is clearest is in the field of history. Most of us are quite accustomed to thinking about the “what” of history. We teach what happened, who did it, and why. But it is also important to think about the “how” of history. How do we know those things? What evidence allowed historians to figure them out? Do they ever change their minds? And even better—what makes historians curious? What kinds of questions do they ask?

I’ve taught students from primary grades to graduate school that historians are like detectives. They look for clues. They get testimony from eyewitnesses. And they put all the clues together to figure out what happened. Just as detectives (real or TV variety) shouldn’t use hearsay or second-hand sources, historians need to work with primary sources—both to raise questions and to answer them.  I’m going to have more to say about asking questions in the disciplines (Coming Attraction: Three Keys to Creativity in the Classroom!), but for today let’s just look at one resource for beginning helping students think about raising (and answering) questions from primary sources.

In honor of African American History Month, I thought this would be a good day to introduce you to some of the resources at the Charles C. Wright Museum of African American History, right here in Michigan. The museum is in Detroit, but you don’t need to come to Detroit to use some of its primary sources. This is one of the great gifts of the web. Here are just a few places to start.

Beginning on the museum home page, click on the Living History link. You can find it on the home page or by clicking first on the Education link. Under Living History, there are two outstanding resources. The link titled The Journey provides information on African American history by year, from 1863-1945. You’ll find helpful content and discussion questions, but the best part is the primary source documents. If you click on the “Learn More” link for any year, you’ll find reproductions of primary documents from that year. Here’s an example from 1863_1.

You can also go from Living History to the Meet the People link. There you’ll find video interviews of older African Americans, talking about everything from their schooling and military experiences to politics and race relations. These are the eyewitnesses of history. If you play a video and move your cursor near the window, you’ll find a link for a pdf transcript.

Those of you who teach, or are interested in, the Civil War will also want to go to the Voices of the Civil War link, under the “Explore” tab. There you’ll find an ongoing series of films, with scores of primary source images. Just click the pause icon and you can look more closely at any of them.

Of course there are many other resources at the museum website, but how do you get started using them? Here are just a few ideas.

  1. Pick any of the primary source documents appropriate to your students. Talk about historians and what historians do. Make the link between clues that detectives find and primary source documents. Observe the document as historians. Consider what you observe (can directly see), what you might infer, and what additional questions you might raise. You might go on to try to answer the questions, or let the questions themselves be the outcome of the lesson. The key is to begin to understand history as a series of clues, questions, and answers, not textbooks and multiple-choice questions.
  2. Watch some of the Living History videos. Consider what questions you might want to ask older citizens about your area’s history. You might be interested in comparing the experiences of African Americans in your area to those in Detroit, or perhaps you’d be more interested in another cultural group in your area. The key, again, is asking questions. There are eyewitnesses to history all around you. I once worked with a fifth grader interested in local history during World War II. We ended up speaking to three different men who had been present at Pearl Harbor. History came to life before our eyes! May it happen to you as well.

How do help your students find the mysteries in history?

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