In World History, students explore history through narratives, critical reading, and collaborative writing.

In Block 1 of World History, our ninth graders wrote a textbook chapter that approaches the transatlantic slave trade from multiple perspectives. (I encourage you to read their work here!) My goal was to help students practice narrative writing, grow as critical readers, and develop teamwork skills; the students impressed me on all of these fronts.

To prepare for the challenge of writing a textbook chapter, students examined descriptions of the slave trade in textbooks from different historical moments, ranging from the 1830s to present. This foray into historiography helped students understand how contemporary context influences the historical narratives that we tend to accept as fact.

The textbook project engaged students in a highly collaborative process. Students devised a structure for the chapter to ensure that their fifteen individual contributions would come together to form a cohesive whole. Then they dove into research using a combination of historical scholarship, firsthand accounts of the slave trade, and online resources that they carefully evaluated. They coordinated within small groups and between groups to craft the four main sections of the chapter.

While writing the chapter, students had to recognize the limits of storytelling in history. In other words, they had to recognize that the narratives we compose never fully capture the objective truth of what happened in the past; and yet, by piecing together many stories of an event while acknowledging their biases, we can approach a more comprehensive understanding.

Take, for example, the three sources we examined on the first day of the block. Each source let us view the transatlantic slave trade from a different level of “zoom.” We started by watching a two-minute video animating thousands of slaving voyages across three centuries, with each ship represented by a tiny dot. The animation gave us a sense of the scale of the trade. Many students were surprised to learn that fewer than 4 percent of the 10.7 million enslaved Africans who survived the transatlantic journey arrived in mainland North America, while the majority landed in the Caribbean and Brazil.

Source: Slate

Source: Slate

We then zoomed into one of those tiny dots by looking at an abolitionist broadside diagramming the stowage of enslaved Africans on the slave ship Brookes...

... and zoomed in even further by reading a firsthand account of the Middle Passage from the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, a man who endured enslavement and who eventually purchased his own freedom. Equiano’s narrative helped students empathize with the individuals behind the numbers, the dots within the dots on the animated map.

The three sources complement one another; the insights that one source can provide begin where the extent of what we can learn from another source ends. By zooming in and zooming out, students gained an understanding of both the individual human experiences and the larger systems that powered and ultimately dismantled the slave trade. You can see how the students synthesized many more sources in their textbook chapter, which we have posted on our website here.

-- Eve Simister