The 2016 U.S. presidential election has been likened to the attack on Reconstruction, a period when reactionaries organized to beat back measures that would extend equality and racial justice. It’s a history that gets short shrift in most textbooks.
As part of our campaign to encourage and support teaching Reconstruction, the Zinn Education Project posted a lesson by Bill Bigelow called “Reconstructing the South: A Role Play.” This role play engages students in thinking about what freed people needed in order to achieve—and sustain—real freedom following the Civil War. It is followed by a chapter from the book Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution on the possibility of a radically democratic land reform following the war.
We’ve been excited to hear from teachers about the impact of the using the Reconstruction role play. A teacher in West Virginia wrote,
The scenarios and questions really made our students use critical thinking skills, which is often a challenge. With this lesson, students can truly connect with the experiences of the freed slaves. For a time period that does not always get the coverage it deserves, this lesson is absolutely perfect. These materials have found a permanent home in my curriculum.
We’ve included more reflections below. Many of the comments provide insights into the “aha’s” students have as a result of studying the Reconstruction era and its meaning today.
Teachers who send us feedback receive a free copy of A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner.
I chose to first teach this lesson to a small number of students in an after-school setting. What I found was that the lesson had a lot of impact on the students' thinking. It did an awesome job of putting them in the freedmen's shoes. It really made them think about the difficulty in deciding what to do after the Civil War. It also made them realize that just because the war was "finished," didn't mean the fighting was finished.
This unit really made students discuss what is "fair." I heard several students say, "That's not fair!" in their discussions. I believe that anytime that a teacher can get students thinking and discussing the idea of what is "fair" and the ideas of equality and liberty, then the lesson is worthwhile.
"I can't believe I never learned about this." -J.L.
"It's empowering to know that my people WERE working for change, even back then, even with all the bad things that had happened to them. It makes me think we're stronger than we're given credit for." -J.A.
The most powerful aspect occurred during our debrief after. The sudden realization across the room that somehow things are not all that different today swept the room like a wave. As if they all got it at once. And then the hands started shooting up left and right as everyone wanted to speak. Fantastic! We had so much spillover we added an extra day to the lesson just to cover current-day tie-ins.
The role play offers students the opportunity to see the importance of the time period: how much help formerly enslaved people needed, how formerly enslaved people were offered opportunities like never before, and how the country had the opportunity to make major changes in equality and civil rights. This has led to discussions about today's racial issues of police, the justice system, employment, housing, etc., and, as a result, I have been able to open discussions on issues relating to federal powers versus states' rights when it comes to civil rights. This is a wonderful lesson that I plan on using again and again.
I used an excerpt from W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Propaganda of History” to help students frame their thinking and analyze historical evidence in terms of its “truthfulness” in representing the reality of the experiences of freedmen and freedwomen during the Reconstruction Era.
I think the real power in this lesson, though, is in the impact it will have on the future. Having analyzed how decisions made 150 years ago still impact us today, my students are more likely to be purposeful and thoughtful in their own civic involvement as they move forward toward and through adulthood.
Thanks for the great lesson!
The Reconstruction Role Play was very helpful in getting my students to the point where we could analyze the lives of those most affected by the events of this era. Stepping into the shoes of former slaves and white southerners, wrestling with the interactions between these groups, wrestling with the conflicting interests of these groups, and evaluating why Northerners eventually washed their hands of reconstruction efforts helped my kids begin to see this period for what it was.
I also supplemented this resource with materials from the Equal Justice Initiative, the documentary "13th" on Netflix, and readings from the Facing History and Ourselves Reconstruction textbook. I think that this time period is an essential history for our students to confront, especially in light of various current events. From incidents of police brutality, persisting mass incarceration rates, and the use of the death penalty and prison labor to the rise of white supremacy, the Charlottesville riots, and growing inequality across our nation, our kids need to know about the roots of these issues more than ever before.
In the AP section, the group as a whole struggled to balance the desire to enact as full equality as possible (not only political and social, but also economic) with the fears of backlash and terror. As a result, they initially took steps that reflected an extremely moderate, even conservative, approach to Reconstruction, and were later shocked to find that they had an even more moderate plan than the one actually enacted with help from the historical Radical Republicans. One student's reflection paper included the following comment: "I realized that we had internalized a devotion to the idea of 'moderation' to such an extent that we ended up not even being as bold as the real Radical Republicans in history. There was a definite sense that we could and should do better, and we must have more courage in demanding necessary rights and change."
In contrast, the on-level section were passionately egalitarian and radical, undaunted by fears of backlash, because they felt that Reconstruction was a perfect opportunity to use the federal government's resources to strongly and boldly enforce their plans to redistribute land and enact suffrage immediately.
A student commented, "I understand the fears about potential backlash, but we deeply believed that if Reconstruction had been more radical, more bold, and had done even more to solve the economic and class concerns shared by not only Blacks but also poor whites, Reconstruction could have continued on even in the face of extremism. We look at the lasting achievements like the public school system in the South as only one example of the kind of gift a more radical plan could have offered the cynics and opponents."
I teach seniors in the inner city of Minneapolis and racial issues are alive and well even today in 2017. With this activity we had a honest conversation of housing discrimination, job discrimination, and overall racism. This lesson led to a much needed and broader discussion among young adults. I was happy to be involved in it.
The debate went really well for my 5th period since they knew how to use the material to role play a bit more than my 6th period. Some students led the discussion more than others, but all students got a chance to speak. I also held them accountable for participating by taking notes. One student said, "Although it's the right thing for us folks, it would be political suicide to claim all the lands as our own." Another student compared trying Confederate leaders for their war crimes to how the Nazi officers were treated. (Great historic comparison!) 6th period has a higher percentage of ELLs so it was difficult to differentiate this activity for them. However, most of them were able to still participate when encouraged to do so. As a closure, they completed the reflection questions and I also stated that even though they had a great debate, their voices as Freedpeople weren't really considered in reality. I'm hoping that left an impact on students and I can refer to that once we talk about the Civil Rights Movement.
One thing that helped my students truly comprehend what the Reconstruction period was like for African American women and men was the background history. It was short enough for struggling readers, but provided plenty of information. Also, I liked the handouts that stated the situations and arguments that various groups in South was grappling with. That arguments allowed students to know exactly how people during that period justified their actions. They really got into playing out those scenarios. The most important part of the lesson, though, was the questions that asked how students would respond to those same scenarios.
When dealing with the role play, the students had a chance to see things from a different perspective. Many of them reflected on why the racial tension was there and still exists today. The only unfortunate part of the lesson was when we had to end it. Two weeks after completing the scenario, the students are asking me for another one, or at least to do it again! Thanks so much for such a great resource!
Students then were given the assignment to research the current immigration conflict and find opposing, varying attitudes today, especially focusing on refugees. We will follow this up next class.
These role plays can easily be tied to modern issues.
Students felt like they could bring to class their own elements of past history, as well as the problems that freedmen/women faced during the era. The prompt allowed for student freedom, as I facilitated discussion around the room. Students enjoyed this but also looked to me for advice and with questions often. The discussion students had, once into each problem, was meaningful and addressed the major challenges many faced at the time. Every so often, I would also chime in and guide students toward insight they may have missed.
Students really enjoyed the different nature of addressing history through this role play. They were able to critically think through the issues and struggled with others. After our role play, we continued to examine the role Reconstruction played in the post Civil War era. We examined its successes and failures, lastly touching on the ideas of mass incarceration and if Reconstruction truly was successful.
These materials have found a permanent home in my curriculum. Thank you for your time and effort in creating thought-provoking materials for our students.
"Reconstructing the South: A Role Play," by Bill Bigelow, helped inspire my students by engaging them in multiple roles and situations that brought to the classroom lived experiences. Instead of merely reading about the lived experiences, my students portrayed and thus, really began to examine their own perspectives and paradigms of their lives and those of others through this experience. In short, I believe it was a powerful and meaningful, learning experience for all of us.
I implemented the lesson in my 9th grade African-American history classes. My students had previously engaged in Bigelow's abolitionism role play and enjoyed the historical debates. Because of this experience, my students were prepared to engage in this lesson.
I split my class into three small groups of 10-12 each. In their small groups, students spent two class periods discussing the six situations. At the end, each group created plans for Reconstruction to propose to Congress. We evaluated the plans through the lens of healing and justice. As an introductory lesson to the Reconstruction era, students were able to grasp the complexity of trying to reunite the nation.
Another powerful lesson was when two of my students shared stories about their OWN families—whose stories had been passed down from the last 1890s. These two students were able to share copies of letters and other material from their own families, who had roots in Mississippi and Tennessee. For my high schoolers, this proved to be most valuable because they were able to connect the lesson with the historical account and with their everyday lives. They actually began to see their own classmates in a way that may not have been possible without the creative stimulation of this rich lesson.
For example, the group of students in the first attached picture had an argument over the question of protection for the freedmen and women. One solution proposed by a group member was to revoke rights of gun ownership for those involved with the rebellion. Although most of the group agreed with this idea, there was one student who believed it was too radical and "resentment" would be the only major success of that policy.
After class was done, I overheard the student (who disagreed with taking away gun rights for Southerners) in the hallway complaining still, how she cannot believe her group took that position. She said, "If we go to war again because of this, it is not my fault because I didn't believe in that policy. I told them it was a bad idea and they didn't listen!" I was happy to hear that the content from class was still on her mind, after the lesson had ended.
As for the students in the second attached photo (zoomed out view), there were some kids who finished their solutions early and were wandering around the classroom to see what other groups came up with. You will see a blonde hair student standing by another group of four. She dropped by to see what they came up with on the topic of consequences for Confederate leaders. She could not believe that they planned to have the leaders executed. She went on to inform them that harsh retaliation may occur from other Southerners if they carried out this policy. The group did not come to an agreement with this other perspective. They believed that as long as Confederate leaders survived, there was potential for danger. They even argued (using their present-day knowledge), that groups like the KKK, may have ceased to exist if these leaders were disciplined harshly. Once again, these students continued this conversation in the hallway later in the day.
The students love to participate in these types of simulations and I would have to say that this one sparked an interesting discussion.
Thank you for the engaging activity!
After a giving my sophomores a good background in slavery and the economic issues leading to the Civil War, I used the Reconstruction role play over the course of two days — one to prepare and one to carry out. I saw my students understanding the problems of Reconstruction much more fully than earlier students had. Getting into the skin of a historical character is so powerful, and the variety of characters give such a full picture.
My students tend to come from different educational backgrounds: some are international students who have little background in American history, some have a limited background, and some, especially those coming from public schools, think they know everything ("we've learned this a million times"). I believe the latter students learned the most from this lesson, as they saw the issues from the "inside" for the first time.
I will definitely use this lesson again next year.
APUSH students were able to consider all points of view and especially the perspectives of newly freed African Americans and people in the West. When I have asked students to construct a Reconstruction Plan in past years even the most advanced students would not consider all peoples' voices. This is a great way to get students to lead the class.
When considering what should happen to confederate leaders one student proposed former slave owners should have to become slaves for a period of time. Another student took the position that if slavery is "wrong" it is wrong for everyone and no matter how shamefully they had treated the slaves, that they should be treated with more respect so as not to become "like they had been." There was quite a heated debate about what was "justice" and "eye for an eye" vs "do unto others."
The other unexpected twist was how many students admitted to being "mixed" so it isn't fair to only have reparations or consequences for folks who are "full." This took us down the path about assumptions we make about others based on skin tone, how and why that happens today, and the conclusion that that isn't how they want to be treated or treat others.
It was some of the best discussion and least resistance to writing (after the discussion of each question they had to write what they thought should happen and why) I have ever had. Thank you for making this available.
I teach 8th grade in Holmen, Wisconsin. Although a small town, there are racial issues, discrimination, and prejudice. With this activity, we had an honest conversation about discrimination and overall racism. This lesson led to broader discussions among my students as well as at home. Thank you for putting this lesson together.
This lesson plan gave me a way to teach reconstruction to the students that will have a lasting impact. It shows more than the "textbook" answers to reconstruction which focus on the battle for the south between whites. Reconstruction had the biggest impact on newly freed African Americans, and this lesson shifts the focus on the people who had to deal with the results of reconstruction. This lesson uses women, men, and documents to help put a "face" to reconstruction for my students. Something that will have a lasting impact!
I particularly liked the excerpt from "Freedom's Unfinished Revolution”…. The discussion questions included at the end of the document were well written to develop critical thought. There were good lower level questions that essentially asked for recall and then others that allowed for students to begin to synthesize multiple sources and build larger arguments.
Reconstructing the South: A Role Play enabled my students to see and feel the history in such a deeper way than merely covering the textbook. It truly helped to bring history much more alive for them and for me. And it opened their eyes on a personal level to the struggle for human rights and dignity that so many endured then and still do now.
My two sections approached the simulation differently, one breaking into small groups to discuss various top priority issues and one electing to do so together. Through telling the stories they created, they advocated for personal possessions very well. The students approached topics of land acquisition, reparations by masters and the government, the right to bear arms, education, jobs, and fear and safety.
All students were asked to write individual reflections. The responses were fantastic. Many shared that in real life they know compromise wouldn't have been so easy. My school has students from all racial and national backgrounds with a high percentage of international students, so finding common ground and empathy is often difficult. This activity undoubtedly broke through this impasse.
Through this exercise, students gained a greater understanding of the historical implications of issues unresolved from reconstruction. Students carefully listened to multiple perspectives and articulated their own views in gaining rights as new citizens. Coupled with an excerpt from "Lies My Teacher Told Me" students have explored viewpoints and perspectives that they may not have previously discovered.
It was fascinating because they quickly decided to arrange the desks in a circle and started discussing a format for their discussion. It evolved into a co-chair system, with one person introducing the question/issue and the other facilitating the discussion. They decided to vote after some debate. The facilitator summarized the discussion and then conducted a vote. Afterward, I assigned some reflection questions on goformative.com.
One student comment indicated how useful this exercise was: "It was difficult to come to a specific consensus. For instance, we can all agree on punishing Confederate leaders but agreeing on HOW to punish them is very difficult. Freedmen and women had been excluded for centuries, and people don't like change. It is very difficult to accept such a change like that."
This captured the ambiguity and complexity and uncertainty in addressing these issues. They showed a keen awareness that resolving some of these issues was going to be longterm.
For instance, while we agreed that we freed slaves earned the right to own much, if not all, of the land we toiled on, we were concerned about our wellbeing. How would we keep the heavily armed former slave-owners from hurting or murdering us? On this question, we came to the conclusion that freed slaves should earn a percentage of the profits earned from the land, but not be required to operate them. We wanted to go north, even though we knew they were racist up there too.
In the end, we all wanted to know more about what actually happened during Reconstruction. This was encouraging. I urged participants to read Du Bois' Black Reconstruction as well as Foner's Short History of Reconstruction.
Students worked together in small groups and independently to answer each of the six questions within the activity. Students were engaged and collaborating effectively. However, the real magic took place when we had a whole class discussion/debate about the best solutions.
There were clearly two ways of thinking for the students involved. On one side were students who were thinking pragmatically and trying to be realistic about what they thought they could have actually accomplished at this point in history. On the other side were students who were focused on doing what they believed was morally right and what solutions would best ensure the continued liberation of recently freedmen and women. The back and forth was powerful, and students were highly engaged in the process of not just thinking about history but participating in history. Finally, at the end of the day was a comparison between the solutions that won the argument and what decisions were actually made in history. The shock and disappointment were palpable.
My students did wonderfully in taking on new roles and examining the issues of land ownership, protection, and voting. The way in which the lesson is designed allows students to engage in the complexity of history. I was reminded of a James Baldwin quote as they went through the tasks... something along the lines of "American history is both beautiful and terrible." I find students always love being able to tackle issues in class that engage them in history. This activity was well-liked by most students because it allowed them to be active learners of history as opposed to the typical passive learning that is often thought of in history teaching.
A few students commented that it was incredibly difficult to come to a simple conclusion. They said it was too complex. A few students even mentioned the ambiguity of the solutions and how that was hard to rectify. Students appreciated the discussion and a handful of them really immersed themselves in their roles. I look forward to using more Zinn Ed lesson plans in the future.
“Absolutely not,” a young woman responded. “We haven’t resisted slavery for 250 years only to continue to be disenfranchised. The Civil War is over. Now is the chance to demand what we rightfully deserve. Plus, Congress needs us. We grow cotton. We have organizing power.” And so the debate continued, heatedly, for sixty uninterrupted minutes, moving from voting rights to land redistribution to issues of safety and gun ownership.
Starting the unit with the big picture debates not only made for an incredible day of student-led discussion but also kept the students engaged for the entire unit. After coming up with their own proposals for land distribution through the role play, for instance, students were eager to predict and then “find out” what actually happened, gobbling up the ZEP readings following the role play with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Even long after the role play lesson ended, students kept returning to the deeper debates of justice and retribution, radicalism and realism, equity and equality that animated the role play.
Running ZEP’s role play at the beginning of the Reconstruction unit was an incredible experience—the absolute highlight of my teaching career to date. I only hope I can frame future units in such a way that propels students to grapple with complex, unanswerable questions that have inspired centuries of struggles for justice.
Students found it engaging to make decisions about the future of their lives. They liked that the scenarios gave benefits and disadvantages of making specific choices.
As the teacher, I loved that the lesson had great guiding questions with well written, historically accurate activities that provided a great background of Reconstruction. In this time we are living in it is important to see how we got here. Our students were able to draw connections between the experience of African-Americans today and the legacy of Reconstruction.
One of my students mentioned that they never realized “…the shift from being enslaved to free would be so hard for African-Americans. [They had] just assumed that African-Americans would travel to find family, find a job, and fight for their civil rights. This opened my eyes to a new understanding of the trials that African-Americans had to go through during Reconstruction.”
Another student mentioned that they had never considered the fact that, technically, freed-blacks didn’t even own the clothes that were on their backs, and that it would have been so hard for them to find work or find a way to be paid.
Watching their eyes open up to a perspective of African-Americans and not a textbook’s view was an amazing experience as a teacher.
While searching for resources I came across the “Reconstructing the South” lesson and loved it. I set up the classroom and introduced the activity. For homework, the students came up with a name and wrote their personal narrative. The next day, I told them what we would be discussing but left it up to them to arrange the order. They decided to have conference-style setup, with one leader to move along the discussion. I loved the fact that they made it their own. They were well into character and discussed things that mattered to them.
In the end, I had students debrief the activity and some of their answers included:
“I was mostly satisfied with the outcome of the delegation because most of my arguments were voted for. The only question where I was disappointed with the outcome was the fifth question, what should happen about revenge from defeated soldiers and plantation owners, when I believed that nobody should be allowed to hold guns. The class decided that the Union army should occupy the South until tensions decreased.”
“We gave women the right to vote at the same time as Blacks. I was very satisfied with the outcome for most of them. I think we’ve all really learned from our reading and our characters.”
“I was satisfied with the outcome of the delegation because I was able to actually contribute something to the conversation for the first time and it was more fun than usual because each person had a role to play in answering the question."
We timed the "Reconstructing the South: A Role Play" not too long after the students watched the documentary "Roots", so they had a very good idea of the horrors of slavery and how degrading and traumatic the system was. Having this background, the students felt justified in some ways for taking land. However, there were also those who realized there would be backlash and animosity from southern landowners. The role/reversal example of taking lands from the Native Americans really made them think as well, but ultimately they focused on the unpaid debt of their forced labor for generations and felt entitled to ownership. Two out of the three sections voted to take the land, with the one vote being a razor-thin margin that could have gone either way.
The role play succeeded in showing the tug of war that was Reconstruction. Activation of prior knowledge kickstarted discussions over issues like who would protect the freedmen and women from hostile groups like the White League and the rise of the KKK? The focus on land and property ownership, and the political influence it brings goes a long way in understanding why the groups mentioned above had everything to gain by resisting the forced Reconstruction of the South. I would highly recommend this simulation because the simulation itself is relatively brief, but the discussions and question/answer periods were extremely thought-provoking!
I used a modification of the "Reconstructing the South: A Role Play" lesson on the Zinn Education Project. This lesson is so rich in primary documents that I had not seen before this lesson, so I knew that I wanted to expose my 11th graders to them, and I also knew that I wanted to center the authentic voices from the Reconstruction Era in our Reconstruction lessons.
I put students in small groups, and each group was assigned a set of thematic documents. Students used the documents to answer the Essential Question, what were freedmen's needs for freedom? I used Bayley Wyatt's document, Thaddeus Stevens' document, and Frederick Douglass' document, as well as documents from other sources. The next class, we did the role play activity with selected representatives that students chose as our "actors."
These activities enabled me to share an equally engaging and rigorous lesson with my students. Students found the documents rigorous, but I was pleasantly surprised at how many of them found them shocking. Students were shocked by how radical, and punitive Thaddeus Stevens was towards the South and empathized with Wyatt and his experience of abandonment and poverty.
Students were more engaged in the role-play activity, as expected. I was shocked by how quickly students got into character as they read the questions and was pleased by how students were able to consider the different perspectives behind the possible answers.
Overall, the documents and role play activity enabled students to inject themselves into this moment of history and to use the materials and questions to consider the tremendously difficult and important decisions made.
I used the "Reconstructing the South: A Role Play" with my students and they were excited to be able to role play. I was excited that they would get to see Reconstruction from multiple viewpoints. We had gone over the various Reconstruction plans, but this activity allowed them to go beyond the political and experience Reconstruction's impact on the people living at the time. I followed up the activity by showing the documentary "Slavery By Another Name" by PBS. This film was the perfect way to show the failures of Reconstruction and the long-lasting impact of those failures.
Rather than using the lesson as a whole-class, multi-day lesson, I spent about an hour with it to introduce the controversies and complications of the era. I divided students into small groups and gave each group a question to discuss. Students seemed to struggle with how to approach the discussion with their group members, so I decided to have a whole-class discussion of one of the questions not chosen by the students. It happened to be Question 3, "What do you propose should happen to these Confederate leaders?"
The benefit of choosing Question 3 was that students were very passionate about their choices and it led to a level of discussion that I have not previously had with the group. It was also interesting because many students made comments reflective of the various Reconstruction plans, as well as the philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois - all without knowing any of those ideas previously!
I heard student comments of, "Yeah they should be punished! Have you ever heard the saying 'A closed mouth don't get fed'?" I also heard students remark "Silence speaks louder than words," in support of not seeking retribution against former Confederates, but instead letting the future successes of African Americans speak for themselves.
The discussion provided me with an effective way to help students explore the various Reconstruction plans and ideologies of prominent African Americans without lecturing at them or boring them. Because they "experienced" it, and reasoned through it themselves, I feel confident that they are much more likely to remember the content than if I had tried to force it into their brains myself.
I find both of the Zinn Ed lessons on Reconstruction to be well thought out and immediately useable for teachers with very little prep involved. The procedure instructions and pre-teaching comments are relevant. Thank you for providing this resource!