The historical period of Reconstruction reads almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. The players are awash in tragic flaws, the consequences of events are sometimes devastating, even overwhelming, often dramatic. Hopes and dreams are dashed against the rock of reticence, racism, and ambivalence.
In class we have looked at several Lincoln documents (On Colonization, Emancipation Proclamation, Gettysburg Address, Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, and his Second Inaugural) to get a sense of what Lincoln might have done in Reconstruction had he lived. These documents have also helped us observe the evolution in his thinking about slavery and the role of African Americans in this “new birth of freedom.” We have looked at other voices from this period including black codes, sharecropper’s contracts, newspaper accounts, testimonies of many people in various congressional hearings on violence in the south. We analyzed two illustrations of the period, ?Slavery is Dead? by Thomas Nast and Bateman’s National Picture by Horatio Bateman. We watched a pretty powerful video of the period as well (Reconstruction: The Second Civil War).
Today we came around the table to discuss “Was Reconstruction doomed from the beginning? Why or Why not?” This is not an easy question. My students are 8th graders. Only 13 or 14 years old.
It should be noted that the students have almost fully integrated the etiquette of the discussion around the table. They are introduced to this process in the 6th grade but really practice it more regulary in the 7th. By the time they reach 8th grade, they are pros. They know the expectations of the table (not interrupting, asking questions, referring to previous commenters by name, and the most important, grounding what they say in text and evidence—no hands need to be raised). Not that these discussions are always exemplary, but the students essentially know when they are veering off track and can pull themselves back to the center of the conversation when necessary (or when reminded). The point is, is that the conversation is totally controlled by them. I walk around the table taking notes, marking who is speaking and the points each student is making. But the students manage the conversation themselves. Really. Sometimes train wrecks occur, but not often. Usually we have observers– a geographer who maps the conversation (see image above), a statistician who tracks how many text references are made, how many boys speak, how many girls, how many questions asked, body language, etc. and a historian who records the thread of the conversation. At the end of every discussion we have a meta conversation about the conversation. The students are most eager about seeing the “map” of their discussion.
8th graders have a lot to say about the world. Their words are sometimes not as articulate or as grounded in the pieces of evidence and text as we teachers like to see. Their ideas are raw and sometimes we observe them organically form themselves before our very ears. Sometimes their thoughts are sloppy, even driven by a mistaken notion or two. Sometimes, when we are lucky, we actually can watch an idea bounce around the table and refine itself as each student knicks off its rough edges– especially when they feel they are in total control of what is being shared.
Today was not a perfect discussion or even the best one we have ever had. But today’s discussion was one of their sincerest and most genuine. There was an authentic passion driving it all. The students wondered if Lincoln had lived, how different would Reconstruction have gone? SW blurted out if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t killed Lincoln someone else definitely would have. They tried to get underneath the notion of why change cannot happen overnight and why it was/is so hard. They looked at the problems that can occur when expectations are too high. They wrestled with the different manifestations of the reticency of the south, the ambivalence of the north. They talked about idealistic legislation and how empty it was without the ability to enforce it. When JS brought up that maybe the failure of Reconstruction is why racial tensions and disparities still exist today, the table did not take up the idea and run with it. However, they went on to discuss how Andrew Johnson was the worst president because of his leniency toward the planter class and his outright racist attitudes, his lack of flexibility and constructive vision. RW championed the amendments that came out of it. And the country did ultimately reunify after all, she continued– wasn’t that Lincoln’s goal?
Almost everyone spoke. They all had something to say and most of them listened carefully to each other most of the time. Once Lincoln was assassinated, Reconstruction may have been doomed, but certainly not the voices of 8th graders, earnest and with intention, trying to make sense out of this tragic drama.