Teachers and students describe the impact of the Zinn Education Project lessons in their classrooms.
If you are a teacher or student, please add your quotes and stories.
Jump to: Zinn Education Project website • Teaching Reconstruction • The People vs. Columbus, et al. • The Constitutional Convention Roleplay • U. S. – Mexico War • A People’s History of the United States
Zinn Education Project Website
The Zinn Education Project helps me bring multiple perspectives in my classroom and allows me to teach history fairly and accurately. Our history is not perfect, it’s progress. We won’t move forward without understanding the full picture of our past.
Textbooks alone cannot provide that. Resources like the Zinn Education Project give us a window into the past that helps teachers explain the view from the shore and the view from the boat for example.
There’s no way I could be as effective in pushing students’ thinking and getting them to critically question the otherwise accepted narrative of history without the resources and ideas provided by the Zinn Education Project. It continues to push my own thinking of how to present and examine history.
The Zinn Education Project is my compass in a sea of corporate textbooks, packaged common core curriculum, and standardized testing.
My entire curriculum is based on lessons that can be found on the Zinn Education Project.
To the Zinn Education Project, I can only say thank you — thank you for insisting that we teach marginalized voices and time periods, for providing us key resources that make our jobs in the classroom easier, and for challenging us to always question the reasons behind the material we choose the teach.
As a teacher, the Zinn Education Project website is invaluable because it provides activities that directly relate to A People’s History. Last week we did The People vs. Columbus, et al. which places all the parties involved in the arrival of Columbus on trial for the murder of the Tainos. The activity was so interactive that teachers from other classrooms had to ask us to quiet down. Students were able to better understand the motives and consequences behind the arrival.
Even though A People’s History can be a bit difficult for some students, the activities on the Zinn Education Project website makes the content accessible regardless of their reading level.
I’ve used a few of the role play activities from the Zinn Education Project over the past few years. I keep going back to them because they work!
The Constitution Role Play and The People vs. Columbus are transformative lessons in cultivating radical empathy and critical analysis in my students around early U.S. history. They inspire deep engagement and content retention.
Thank you so much for the Zinn Education Project website. I discovered it while writing a paper for my Africana Studies college class and I’ve spent hours just being amazed at what I thought I knew about history.
Thanks for caring to illuminate minds!
History is one of the ways that enabled and empowered me to find myself early in junior high school. I had a history teacher who made one of the greatest impressions on me ever by throwing our history books in the garbage. Then she told us that she was going to teach us about us! She changed my life.
I signed up for the Zinn Education Project because I want my students to hear the voices and perspectives missing from traditional historical narratives and textbooks, and to develop a critical understanding and engagement that empowers them to change their world. The Zinn Education Project offers great, thought-provoking teaching tools to explore a fuller, richer history, and make history classes more engaging, more relevant.
I needed an engaging way to teach history with manageable reading for my middle school special education students. The role plays I found on the Zinn Education Project website were perfect. We started off with The People vs. Columbus and at the end of the year students were still talking about it. The short role play descriptions and chance to debate the issue from many perspectives gave my students an accessible way to understand a complex and nuanced history and critique the standard story.
After searching online, and quite honestly, with not a lot of historical background, I came across your Zinn Education Project website and was COMPLETELY amazed by all of the neat information!! The lesson plans were specific and to the point, for any teacher to easily understand and share with students.
I’ve used the Zinn Education Project’s materials since my first year teaching.
Nine years later, my students can speak to the power of deconstructing the narratives of Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln’s efforts that have replicated white supremacy and marginalization of people of color in historical discourse.
For many of them, it is empowering to learn from multiple perspectives and invigorates their desire to learn and disrupt the status quo.
The Zinn Education Project gives students another lens with which to look at history. Students love alternate view points.
American history is not about how the elite did it all for Americans, but how the elite used the lower classes to build what we have!
The Zinn Education Project lessons provide an alternative perspective that broadens the students’ thinking about a topic. They also provide a way for the students to engage with the material in a tangible way.
I have been teaching history in Boston for 16 years, and I strive to teach my students that they have a voice and the power to take action. No text helps me do that more than Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and the supplementary materials provided through the Zinn Education Project. I find your materials to be well-crafted. For example, the role play activity where students take on the identity of people impacted by the U.S. – Mexico War generates excellent discussion each time I use it.
I use thought-provoking statements from Zinn’s text in mini-debate activities, such as a spectrum line. For example, I will ask students to stand along a line ranging from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree” in reaction to one of Zinn’s statements. By simply standing, they express an opinion. Student volunteers will then share why they have taken that particular position.
One of my favorite moments using A People’s History came this year when we read about the beginning of differentiation between indentured servants and slaves after Bacon’s Rebellion. A student said, “If racism was purposefully created, it means that people can un-create it.” I couldn’t hope for a better realization, and it is for moments like these that I am excited to continue to use materials from the Zinn Education Project in my classroom.
I have been teaching 7th grade history for 5 years- supposed to be from Jamestown to Reconstruction. Every year, 7th grade teachers would run out of time and would end with the Civil War. The students would leave thinking, “Hooray! The Union won! Slaves are free! Life is perfect!” They would start 8th grade after Reconstruction — so our students completely missed one of the most important eras of history that still impacts our world today.
I made it my mission to teach Reconstruction.
I found the Zinn Education Project website and the lesson plan Reconstructing the South. From the clear lesson plan, my students were able to empathize and understand the experiences of the freed people during Reconstruction.
Reconstructing the South is a great lesson for helping students understand the history of Reconstruction and also how myths surrounding Reconstruction influence how many people look at Reconstruction history today.
The Lost Cause Mythology has held a grip of falsehood on American “memory” for much of the 20th and now into the 21st century.
This lesson from the Zinn Education Project help students to understand the role of African Americans in the post-evil war south and now white southerners actively worked to end these gains.
Teaching history is always so much more valuable when it can be done in such a lively manner as a role play. Painful history, especially, can reach kids more easily at times when approached in a dramatic and creative way.
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.
Reconstructing the South is an excellently planned role play — the questions and the sources really got students engaged in the moment of possibility around Reconstruction, rather than looking back on history as “an important lesson” but one that was predestined to turn out specific way. Students of all skill levels were hotly debating these issues, and were eagerly citing evidence to support their positions. One group of students went so far as to calculate a daily wage for freedmen and women to be paid if they agree to farm part of their land with cash crops for the government, and then attempted to convert the amount into its 1875 equivalent!
Students tied the activity into the next part of our unit around change into the Civil Rights Era, and studied the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Claudette Colvin, and now are engaged in the Black Panther Party. The activity really helped me as a teacher (still in my first year!) think about what makes awesome historical thinking questions that center the counter-narratives in American History. Awesome resource and I highly recommend to teachers. The only thing I feel could be improved is some suggested scaffolds for language learners in terms of the source documents.
More teacher voices on Reconstruction
The lesson Reconstructing the South: A Role Play is excellent for exploring the Reconstruction time period. Too often, periods of American history like this one are presented without relevant connections to today’s world, which make our not-so-distant past seem like ancient history to young learners.
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 had a wonderful experience with the Reconstruction Role Play activity when teaching Reconstruction to my Race and Membership elective. The elective itself is about developing Race Relations throughout US History, from the origins of slavery to the present day. We look at a number of issues, but Reconstruction and its aftermath is a central element to the course. Because I teach in Memphis, I also encounter many students who have never really studied this period of history and among many of their families, the “Lost Cause” myth of the Confederacy is alive and well. This becomes very clear when we’ve held discussions about the role of Confederate Statues, how we memorialize certain periods in our history, and how we look at and come to terms with the history of our city and region.
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.
Reconstructing the South: A Role Play absolutely helped to enhance our understanding of the Reconstruction Era. While I have always spent a fairly substantial amount of time teaching Reconstruction, this lesson brought in new information both for me and my students.
Events from this era typically come up all throughout our year as we discuss civil rights and how Jim Crow Laws and segregation took hold for such a long time in our history, so when given the chance to look back on what freedmen could have done differently, many students, I would say the majority of students, wanted to demand the full distribution of land from the government. I think many saw it as a way to right the wrongs and try to change history for the better.
What I appreciated most about this activity is that it created more questions for my students as we finished up. They began to think about just how challenging this time period was and I think gained a better understanding of why this era needs to be studied closer and revisited throughout our year of U.S. history together.
The role play was an excellent way to get students to consider the complex issues and questions facing the country and freedmen at the end of the Civil War. I gave students the “Problems” questions on day one and told them that the next day I would not be guiding them, and they would have to decide how to conduct the proceedings.
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.
“Reconstructing the South: A Role Play” allowed for many of my students to enter into a simulation in which they could employ historical thinking. The simulation allowed my students to empathize with the plight of newly freed slaves in the United States. While many of my students started the simulation timid, they became empowered with their new status as freedpeople. Several students chose very moderate positions on the postwar questions and status of former slaves and ex-confederates. If I did not have any students take a hardline approach to ex-confederates, I intervened, and many students joined in the idea of harsher punishment for them and greater freedoms for the newly freed people.
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.
I used Reconstructing the South: A Role Play for the first time this year.
It was gratifying to see students’ insights shift, and to witness them grappling with hard choices – not unlike the experiences of newly Freedmen, who didn’t always make the choices that Northern politicians thought they should.
Read more comments from teachers about the lessons on Reconstruction.
The People vs. Columbus, et al.
I dedicate a unit to Christopher Columbus, after a unit on the various Indigenous groups that existed before his arrival, and use The People vs. Columbus lesson.
Our overarching question is “What should be the legacy of Columbus?” Overwhelmingly our students usually decide that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and Columbus were most responsible for this genocide.
Students who struggle to write are most engaged and excited to share their ideas when we’re using Zinn Education Project lessons.
The People vs. Columbus is a great way to begin teaching about U.S. history!
Students enjoy the trial activity, learning about what happened and deciding who was responsible for the destruction of the Taino culture. It captures their interest in history and gets them thinking about current issues.
Columbus Day brings up a lot of hard questions in my 7th grade social studies classes. The People vs. Columbus lesson provides an avenue to open that conversation up with students.
More teacher voices on The People vs Columbus
I always begin my U.S. history course with the People vs. Columbus, et al Trial. It is amazing how engaged students become to not only learn the truth but also be able to defend themselves using the evidence provided. Students love creativity and this case allows students to come to their own conclusions.
In my 8th grade history class, it is not an exaggeration to say during the People vs. Columbus activity is the most engaged my students are all year. Real, conceptual learning and content retention happens during the block.
I used the Columbus Trial activity in my methods course with preservice elementary school teachers. It went great, and they loved it!
Despite being high school graduates, my students had never heard of the Tainos or thought of Empire-building as the main actor in history.
The People vs. Columbus lesson was transformative in my classroom. Students were initially motivated by the competitive aspect of the lesson in trying to “win” during the trial. During the preparation of this lesson, students were able to really practice historical contextualization by looking through various points of view.
Additionally, I supplemented this lesson with primary sources from Voices of a People’s History. Working with the primary sources provoked deep discussion about why certain points of view are omitted or de-emphasized in American History. We compared Las Casas to Columbus and discussed the development of racism and ethnocentrism.
On the day of the trial, students were completely engaged in the process of argumentation, viewing history (in many cases for the first time) as more than just fact, but a series of arguments presented through various frameworks. By the end of the trial, it was clear that blame was very difficult to lay on just one group. It encouraged them to think more critically about a complex web of contingencies that all led to the genocide of the Tainos. They were engaged through the entire unit, practiced presentation skills, research, historical argumentation, and more.
When I used The People vs. Columbus last year, the students were absolutely energized! The students had a great desire to prepare strong, convincing arguments as we put Columbus on trial. Every student in the class was engaged, which really says something about the strength of the lesson! Even the more quiet and shy students were able to take part and enjoy becoming involved. Students commented that they had never thought of Columbus and his exploration from the various perspectives before participating in this lesson activity. Many students also commented how much fun it was, and that they wanted to do something like this again in the future. I appreciate how this lesson enabled the students to develop communication, collaboration and critical thinking skills, which are essential in today’s world. I teach in an International Baccalaureate School, and examining events and ideas from multiple perspectives is the key to understanding other cultures and becoming internationally-minded. Thank you so much for sharing engaging activities and lesson plans for students.
The impact from The People vs. Columbus resource is multifaceted.
The level of engagement and rigor that this activity can bring about in my students is unmatched by other activities for studying the time period during which Europeans first began to arrive to the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Over the years, I have been able to continue to add primary and secondary sources to enhance this activity and make the conversations richer and deeper. Each year, I invite administrators and teachers to observe the trial. Here’s what some teachers have had to say about the activity:
I was astounded at the high level of tasks, thinking, vocabulary, and procedures…It truly made me reflect on what I’ve been assuming is “7th grade level,” and what 7th graders are actually capable of.
It was clear in the proceedings that this was no fluffy activity in which students joked about Columbus with little actual background knowledge. Rather, I observed a rigorous level of preparation on the part of the students, highlighted by them quoting primary source documents from Columbus’s era.
During the full-class courtroom proceedings, then during the Jury deliberation that I observed in the room next door, your students were passionately, wholeheartedly engaged. They referred back to their notes feverishly, conferred with colleagues, and were excited about and invested in the proceedings. During the witness questioning and closing statements, student-generated orations were stirring.
I believe that the way in which ZEP pushes students to understand history through a critical lens has made my classroom more engaging, more rigorous, and has prepared my students to be the types of citizens this world desperately needs.
My students were completely engaged in The People vs. Columbus trial we held about the massacre of the Taíno people. They loved it! They were so outraged that Columbus Day is a federal holiday that I suggested we send letters to the editors of local newspapers and our city council. They were so excited. Most of the students chose to send letters. When a student’s letter was published the next day advocating for our city to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, the students who had not yet sent letters immediately began to write their own.
It was a powerful lesson in civics, especially since my students are disenfranchised and feel like they don’t have power to effect change politically.
When I do the Christopher Columbus lesson, the students are blown away. They are usually so surprised at the truth behind Columbus. They also love the role-playing. This year, when I was doing the lesson, my assistant principal walked in just as one of the students who usually sits quietly during social studies was standing up and asking a fiery round of questions to the defendants on the stand. I was so impressed with it. The lesson also gets students who I usually don’t get a lot of participation out of to debate with the students who I do. I love it!
The People vs. Columbus trial was so effective. I taught it in a Native American Studies course and the students spent a lot of time exploring primary source documents from Columbus and Las Casas.
It was powerful to watch them transform into excellent and passionate litigators, but basing their arguments upon historical evidence. Also, the power of role plays to induce empathy and compassion for various points of view was evident.
My students are all Native American and they are all too familiar with the concepts of genocide and exploitation. However, many of them did not know about the Taíno and were curious to learn more. At the conclusion we watched the film Even the Rain to enhance their understanding of the texts, and also to learn more about the Cochabamba water war to piece together an interdisciplinary unit about water that they were engaged in.
The Christopher Columbus trial is a phenomenal lesson to use with students. First, it forces them to think about the construct of our globalized world in a new and critical manner. Americans are bred upon the unchallenged idea of superiority and equality, and it is troubling for them to have to see that the true pillars of trade, colonization, exploration, and expansion are instead rooted in forced inferiority and exploitation. This lesson further challenges students to give up the stereotypes and nostalgia surrounding Native Americans (in this case on Hispaniola) and see them as people who had functioning societies and belief systems. The most powerful aspect of the lesson, however, is the way it forces students to research, utilize primary resources, think in a debate-like manner, and justify their positions with evidence.
One of my students returned to visit me last month to inform me that because of partaking in this lesson last year, he joined an online group advocating the end of Columbus Day. I was impressed to have a 10th grade student not only take a firm stand on something, but actually take action to incite change. Another of my students said that this “was the best lesson I ever learned because it helped me believe that there is ‘real’ history I can learn from.”
I use the People vs. Columbus resource annually in my 7th grade classroom.
My students love it and find it very engaging. I always invite other teachers to serve as a jury and they are always impressive.
I’ve used Rethinking Columbus two times now in different institutions. The impact has been great. For both cases, I used the People vs. Columbus, et al. trial activity — one at a graduate institute and the other at a youth organization. Both instances had the participants, ages 17 to 30, invested in the trial and who they were representing — shedding more than just a light on the holiday weekend (as this activity was done just after Columbus Day). More specifically, it provided space for a specific participant to open up about his Taíno background. The activity got a lot of love.
Constitutional Convention Roleplay
I use Zinn Education Project lessons because they are high quality, get students to do critical thinking, and allow them to examine history from multiple perspectives. Having my students engage in the U.S. Constitutional Convention role play is always a highlight for them, as students get to actively relive history and begin to develop historical empathy.
Through using the Zinn Education Project lessons, my students are beginning to see and understand how the inequities of the past were constructed and then they are able to start making the connections to today’s inequities in society. It is from this understanding that we continue to work to try and figure out how to change our current world, based on our knowledge of the past.
The Zinn Education Project has delivered time and time again the most impactful experiences for my students. They will not remember the PowerPoint info on the Articles of Confederation, but they will remember when they wrote the Constitution from the perspective of an enslaved African America or a member of the Iroquois nation using the Constitutional Convention role play.
They understand the problems embedded into the way our country was founded AND the remarkable opportunities we have to reshape the conversation in our nation.
I use the Constitution Role Play lesson in my classroom as a hook for a larger unit, in tandem with Teaching Tolerance’s unit “Did the Constitution establish a just government?” The students were very engaged during the activities and created a much more just constitution in our role-play. Really appreciated the resource.
U. S. – Mexico War
I received the Zinn Education Project materials and I immediately flipped through the book and taught the U.S. – Mexico War lesson. It was so wonderful to see a group of usually unmotivated students engaged in the lesson that I called in another teacher to see this group of students actively involved in the activity.
I use lessons from the Zinn Education Project because they are relevant, factual, and inspiring. Lessons like The U.S. – Mexico War shed light on aspects of our shared American heritage that are often overlooked. These lessons give a voice to great Americans who are too often forgotten.
Even though my students don’t quite understand it yet, I can see that a close examination of people’s history empowers my students to use their own voices.
I teach at an inner city school, an incredibly diverse school. The lesson on the Mexican American War and the role play are incredibly effective in helping students understand the role of racial bias in the history of U.S. Foreign Policy.
Students really appreciate the opportunity to read and reflect on Zinn’s chapter, and appreciate different points of view about the war during the role play. My Latino students appreciate the approach, one that all too often in their education has not received the attention it deserves. This lesson took on new forms and even greater importance at our school, with the organization of a Hispanic Union, and it informed our celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month and current events, like the debate on immigration policy.
Many of my 12th grade students today in Government class still look back to this lesson as a foundational moment in their learning about the history of US/Mexico relations. (They) see that the border issue today has a much longer history and wider context than they originally may have realized.
I dedicate a unit to westward expansion, and using the U.S.-Mexico War Tea Party activity has given students many perspectives on the war.
They enjoy this lesson in particular because they are able to interact with one another and teach in turn their assigned perspectives. I find that they walk away from this activity knowledgeable and excited to learn about the impact of the war.
A People’s History of the United States
Because of this book, I understood early in my college career the importance of the true, unfiltered words of the actual actors in a historical event. As a result, I was drawn further into the study of history and, eventually, into my career as a history teacher. What A People’s History brought to my attention is that American history is much more interesting than that. Our history is an exciting, sometimes appalling, struggle for power and that makes us just like every other country that has ever existed.
A long list of “good guys” with no one to struggle with is neither a true story nor a good story. It doesn’t resonate because it leads the student to believe that we are all waiting for the next exceptional leader, instead of becoming a force for change in our own communities. A People’s History helped me recognize this as a student of history and inspires my attempt to bring true stories to young people, weary of the inaccessible lists that history teaching has become.
I use Howard Zinn’s chapter on the Mexican-American War as a starting point to teach my students Imperialism, Manifest Destiny, and Westward Invasion.
Along with the book, students read primary sources from many sources, including Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. These sources have even inspired their own anti-war protest signs.