Teaching With Primary Sources Lesson: The “White Man’s Burden”?

The Sleeping Sickness Gordon Ross (1911)

In previous posts (here and here), I’ve described the work high school teachers from the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts did in a professional development cycle funded and guided by the Library of Congress’ Teaching with Primary Sources Western Region affiliate.  This blog post is one of five describing specific lessons created by teacher teams and explored through demonstration lessons using this protocol.

This lesson, taught to a 10th grade World History class in a demonstration lesson at Mountain View High School on February 23, 2012, asked students to consider questions as relevant today as they were during the so-called “Age of Imperialism”:

When, if ever, is it valid for one nation or culture to intervene in another to impose its values?How did the imperializing countries justify imperialism?

Students, organized in teams and small groups, explored those questions through primary document sets.  The students demonstrated interest in the documents and the period and formulated interesting observations and analyses.  During the debrief, teachers discussed perennial questions:  How much background information is necessary for students to make sense of the sources?  What are the tradeoffs between quantity of documents and quality of interrogation?  How can we best organize individual responsibilities within a group setting?

Artifacts from the lesson are posted here:

My favorite moment during the observation came from one of the students whose attitude through much of the session might best be described as blase and above it all: Her contributions to the group discussion – and her attention to interpreting the materials – were minimal.  After analyzing each document, the groups were asked to ascribe a rating the document’s creator might place to the question of whether or not country’s have a responsibility to intervene in other nations’ affairs.  After comparing ratings on one doc, she suddenly awakened to the activity.  I’m wondering, she asked her group, why the other groups gave this document such a different rating than we did.  Are they seeing something different than we are?  Her comment reminded me of the value not only of asking students to make ranking decisions but also of the worth of fostering inter-group conversation during groupwork.

Within the debrief, the teacher team discussed key instructional dilemmas including the question of how much background knowledge is sufficient to guide inquiry, the challenges in accessing parody, and the challenges of fine-tuning questions to invite appropriate connections.

The lesson study team was composed of Jeanne Silvey, Larry Asher, Jim Stoda, and Natasha Flak.  They join me in encouraging you to use the comments section below to discuss the lesson.

What do you see here in the lesson and the student work?

How did you adapt it for use in your classroom?

How did your students respond?

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