Experiments in pedagogy: Making history visible

This week I tried something new in my D.C. History class. The class session was focused on the early black experience in Washington, D.C., and the text for the day was a great 2016 piece from the journal Washington History, "Free Black People of Washington County, D.C: George Pointer and his Descendants." The piece works because it traces the story of one family through time, and in doing so tells us a lot about the early black experience of the city. The piece is not too long, but it's chock-full of people and events, and there's a lot to keep track of. I wanted to make sure my students got it.

So here's how I structured class. I started by drawing a timeline on the board, and dividing it into five time periods, making sure to divide up the time in such a way that there was about an equal amount of events in each period (this took a bit of time to plan out beforehand). Then I divided the class into 6 groups of about 4 students each. Each of the first five groups had to fill in the timeline with all the events that took place in their period. They had to write in blue for events related to the Pointer family, red for local events, and green for national/international events. The sixth group had to figure out the complicated Pointer family tree, and draw it on one end of the board. I walked around the room during these time, checking in with the groups as they worked.

When they were done completing their sections, students had to place their stickies, which are filled with their notes from the readings, on the board in an appropriate place. (At the beginning of the semester, I gave my students a course pack of all the readings, and I gave them a 100-pack of stickies. As they do each day's reading, they must jot down at least 3 things, on 3 separate stickies, that particularly interested them from the reading, or that they have questions about. They then bring those stickies with them to class, and we use them in different ways. This stickie thing is a brand-new experiment for me this semester.) If their note related to something written on the board, they placed their stickie by what was on the board. If their note had to do with a broader theme or question, they placed it above the timeline. The result looked like this:

The process of students figuring out their events and getting them up on the board took longer than I anticipated. (I think if I did this again, I'd time them or somehow try to get them to race to get their stuff up there.) Because it took so long to make the timeline, we had less time at the end for discussion of the larger themes brought up by the reading, and less time for connecting students' points, on the stickies, into the discussion. But students were really engaged in this (in large part because they were enraged and sorrowed by much of what they learned). One student told me she loved it, because it made the reading so much clearer to her. I like having students stand up and move around during class, and this required that. And I love all the different handwriting on the board, because it emphasizes that we are creating an understanding of the text collectively. Overall, this was a fun, noisy, engaged 80 minutes. If we had reserved more time (say, 20 minutes) to step back from the timeline and discuss the big questions, it would have been even better.