Mistakes and questions lead to authentic learning

It’s easy to spit back information the teacher provides.  Memorize it, recall it on the exam, and forget about most of it…

But when you engage with information and ideas, that’s when real learning happens.

My students are finally starting to ask real questions and take risks.  For homework this weekend, I had them read excerpts from Building the First Slavery Museum in America, a compelling article in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about a plantation in New Orleans that has been converted to a slave museum.  It just opened in December 2014.

One of my students found it amazing that there were 107,000 slaves held in one slave jail.  Indeed, that would be amazing.  It turns out the student misread the 107,000 figure — it’s not that there were 107,000 slaves in one jail at that plantation.  It’s that 107,000 slaves spent their lives in Louisiana up to 1820 — here’s the line from the article:

A number of memorials also dot the grounds, including a series of angled granite walls engraved with the names of the 107,000 slaves who spent their lives in Louisiana before 1820.

But it’s GREAT that this student made this mistake.  Becuase it forced me to think more about what that 107,000 figure meant.

Why would you stop counting the slaves who spent their lived in Louisiana at 1820?  Well, you wouldn’t.  The musuem is a work in progress.  Another article I found about the museum seems to say that the idea is to eventually document the name of every single slave who lived in Louisiana:

Influenced by Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Cummings [the patron of the museum, who has contributed $8 million of his own money to build it] designed the slaves tribute and had it manufactured on-site. “We have our own engraving machine,” he said. “I’ve got plaques still being printed.” Eventually, there will be about 400,000 names to intimately document slavery’s existence in this state through 1865, he said.

The polished panels are less restrained, more overtly emotional, than Lin’s monument to soldiers who died in Vietnam. Inset in large type between names are quotations from the oral histories of Louisiana slaves found in the Library of Congress. In effect, they’re little everyday stories about how it looked, felt and tasted to be a slave.

If there were 400,000 slaves in total in Louisiana, I wondered how many slaves there were in Louisiana in 1860 (the last year there would be a census asking people to record their “property”)

I re-formatted data I got from http://www.civil-war.net/pages/1860_census.html to sort it by total number of slaves, rather than alphabetically by state name — that way, you can see which states had the most slaves.

As you can see in the chart below, Louisiana was #6, neck-and-neck with North Carolina (where I teach), at 331,000 slaves each.  But NC had nearly twice as many free people — 660,000 to 375,000.

1860 census

This is exactly the sort of inter-disciplinary work I want to see students doing in my classes.  Math and excel spreadsheets are definitely part of history.  Eventually, I want my students to be the ones who look up data, paste it into excel, and and re-format the information to make it more user-friendly — but for now, I’ll model the process.

Another student in class was struck by this line in the article:

Louisiana is the eighth-poorest state in the nation. Yet in the lush sugar plantations that crop up every couple of miles, you can glimpse the excess that defined the region before the Civil War.

She was curious about how Louisiana could be the eighth poorest state in the nation.  She had the impression it was a wealthy state before the Civil War.

In class, we talked brielfy about how, before the Civil War, slaves were property.  So a plantation owner with 100 slaves would be quite rich.  By the way, 100 slaves would be huge for that time period — most slave owners had 5 or fewer slaves — we tend to focus on the large plantations, which were not typical.

After the civil war, that plantation owner is less rich by 100 times however much a slave is worth.  If a slave were worth $1,000, that means that person lost $100,000 in wealth when slavery ended.  Additionally, assuming all 100 slaves survived the Civil War, they would each be new people in the state with zero wealth.  They would significantly bring down the average of wealth per person.  We discussed how that lack of wealth would lead many former slaves to become sharecroppers.

Here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia article on sharecropping

Sharecropping, along with tenant farming, was a dominant form in the cotton South from the 1870s to the 1950s, among both blacks and whites.

Following the Civil War of the United States, the nation lay in ruins. Plantations and other lands throughout the Southern United States were seized by the federal government and thousands of freed black slaves known as freedmen, found themselves free, yet without means to support their families. The situation was made more complex due to General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order Number 15, which in January 1865, announced he would temporarily grant newly freed families 40 acres of land on the islands and coastal regions of Georgia. This policy was also referred to as Forty Acres and a Mule. Many believed that this policy would be extended to all former slaves and their families as repayment for their treatment at the end of the war. An alternative path was selected and enforced. 3 months later in the summer of 1865; President Andrew Johnson, as one of the first acts of Reconstruction, instead ordered all land under federal control be returned to its previous owners. This meant that plantation and land owners in the South regained their land but lacked a labor force. The solution was to use Sharecropping. It would allow the government to match labor with demand and begin the process of economically rebuilding the nation via labor contracts.

In Reconstruction-era United States, sharecropping was one of few options for penniless freedmen to conduct subsistence farming and support themselves and their families.

This notion of Louisiana as the eighth “poorest state” raises another question about how to interpret numbers — how do you measure poverty?  Is it by median household income?  By per-capita income?  Or by average wealth of each family?

On this list of US states by income, Louisiana comes in at #44 by median household income ($41,734), and #39 in per-capita income ($24,442).

The point is that my students engaged with the material in a way that will help us think in sophisticated ways about history.

  • How many slaves were in the South before the Civil War?  Where were they concentrated?
  • What were the slaves’ lives like? (that’s the point of the new slavery museum)
  • How would the South be transformed as a result of the Civil War? (not just economically, but also politically and socially and culturally)

Here’s to more student mistakes and more student questions — both lead to authentic learning.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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