Statutes and Historical Narratives: Why They Matter

I have a lesson on historical narratives that I’ve done a few times, and could be a great intro to class. The lesson examines who writes history and why that matters in terms of learning. In the wake of the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, VA, this might be a timely lesson. The utilization of skill is important here, because if students know how to do this, they can implement it with current events, like the Lee statue.

As an intro, consider the following questions to start a conversation:

  • Who writes history? How do we consider that lens and what is missing?
  • Is history subjective or objective?
  • How do we judge history?
  • Should we judge or seek to understand?
  • What do historians do?
    • •Read •Question •Wonder

As you discuss, have student notice there isn’t necessarily one “right” answer. It also helps to frame that sometimes we learn history not to judge it, but to understand. Obviously, there are things in history that are wrong. Period. However, the lens we look through (being our own experiences) can frame an event a bit differently.

*This is a time where you know your students and your content. The purpose of it is to show that history is not fixed, but something we study because we gather more information.


What historical value is placed on statues or monuments?

I did this lesson with the Emancipation Statue in DC.

Step One: As you look at the photo of the statue, answer only the following:

  • What do notice?
  • What questions do you have?       

This is a time to examine, not to analyze. You can collect the information in a Padlet, or on the board.

Step Two: Play the following from NPR: History Professors Find Letter Showing Frederick Douglass’ Opinion On Lincoln Statue and have students add to the list of questions. The purpose of this is to consider new information.

Do narratives rely on certain persons?

•How does additional information change the narrative?

•In what ways does Frederick Douglass as a person change the narrative?

•Does history rely on Douglass as opposed to someone else? How does that change the narrative?

I used a Padlet to do this activity but you can easily do it without. Here is the link on Padlet: https://padlet.com/brievans/15b8ccnpaelkuvi2

Step Three:

•Read the article, Depicted kneeling before Lincoln, this enslaved man broke his own chains in pursuit of freedom” and respond to the question: Does this change your thoughts or add to them?

Step Four: Class discussion

  • Did your view change as you gathered more information? Why is that relevant to the study of history?
  • What other information matters? How do we find that information?
  • Does the lens we look through matter? How do our life experiences dictate how we see things?

This lesson is a good one day lesson on narratives and understanding that there is lots of information in history, some that has yet to be discovered. It’s ok for our views to change as we gather the information.

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