Reconstruction: Rethinking What is Possible

By: Rob Wasielewski, Eighth Grade Humanities Teacher
Eighth grade humanities students recently started their study of Reconstruction, the twelve year period following the end of the American Civil War. This is a critically important—and often overlooked—period of American history, in which, according to Adam Sanchez in his When Black Lives Mattered essay, “the impossible suddenly became possible.”
Throughout their study of Reconstruction, students are asked to consider several throughlines: What does it mean to be free? How did Black folks create their own freedom after emancipation? How did Reconstruction change life in the United States? What can we learn from the history of Reconstruction as we work to strengthen democracy today? Thinking about these essential questions at the beginning of the unit, students identified issues they care for deeply and which seem to be impossible to change: a worsening climate crisis, unsafe gun laws, and continued racial injustice. What Reconstruction shows us, though, is that through the actions of changemakers, prioritization of justice, and anticipation of backlash, the impossible can become possible. Thus far, the unit has provided eighth graders with opportunities to grapple with these questions and possibilities, as well as grow and demonstrate their skills in discussion, active listening, and writing. 

In conversations about our shared text—Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s Dark Sky Rising—students pose meaningful discussion questions of their own creation: Why does Frederick Douglass place such importance on voting rights, describing the ballot as a tool with which to “save ourselves”? How did early challenges and setbacks in Reconstruction lead to even greater progress? Which is more significant: the short-term or long-term effects of Reconstruction?

Discussions take place in the fishbowl format—in which a small group circles and engages in conversation over a shared text while classmates observe from outside. While outside the circle of discussion, students use an online collaborative tool, projected onto the whiteboard, to (a) track the conversation visually and ensure equitable speaking time, and (b) quote classmates who help to add to or complicate their understanding of Reconstruction. 

Among the numerous insightful comments during the discussion:
  • Dagny noted, “The right to vote is important because it's the right to have a say, to control your outcome, and the voice of the people needs to include all people.” Kei’Yanii then connected the powerful impact of voting to continued efforts to suppress voting access today. 
  • Critiquing presidential reconstruction under Andrew Johnson, Abe noted, “Johnson wanted to reunite the country—not reconstruct it” in a more just way.
  • Coleton pointed out that “freedom starts with the law,” and this allowed the group to then explore the ways in which legislature like the 14th Amendment and Reconstruction Acts of 1867 opened up the political world to Black folks, who once in power were able to further expand freedoms, like the creation of public schools.

After completing discussions, students choose one unit throughline or fishbowl question to respond to in a written piece, showcasing their ability to assert a claim, cite evidence, and thoroughly explain their evidence. This is where everything in the humanities classroom comes together, as students incorporate direct quotations from their fishbowl discussions and shared learning from our classroom visual thinking board: vocabulary excitements or curiosities, posted from shared primary and secondary texts, are pulled into writing, as are weekly grammar focuses such as, I use dashes to set off extra information.


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