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.