Stop and Think

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Review Tool scoring

No matter the disciplines or grades we teach, there’s simply no substitute for the learning students can do when considering original historical documents, whether official documents, first-hand accounts, census records, photographs or newspaper and magazine stories from a particular place or time. Properly scaffolded, these documents can build students’ cognitive skills while helping them to understand both past and present. 

In social studies, these primary sources put students in the role of historian. Documents never “speak for themselves,” so students need to ask questions such as: “Who wrote this? Why? What else do I need to know to understand and interpret this document?” These are complex questions that usually require additional investigation. 

Sometimes, original historical documents reveal “hard history” in the making. Their authors may be evincing objectionable, even extremely racist, points of view. Consider Mississippi’s 1861 declaration of its causes of secession, which opens this way: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.” 

This document, and others like it, are essential to help students understand that slavery caused the Civil War.  

But the CARE Review Tool, which we designed to help teachers make decisions about what resources to use in class, won’t give you the best answer on whether to use this document. Here’s why. 

If you use the CARE Review tool, as I did recently, to evaluate Mississippi’s declaration, the document scores at the bottom for all CARE principles. It directly dehumanizes people of African descent. And it is, itself, an artifact of racism. While the declaration can be used to show how systems of oppression are built and maintained, it does not make those systems visible – in fact, it does quite the opposite, by proclaiming those systems to be part of a natural order that should be maintained at all costs. 

On face, the “all red” scores from the review tool would seem to be an argument for excluding this source from a classroom.  

In this case, as with many teaching resources – particularly original historical documents – the scores don’t tell the whole story. To be clear, the review tool’s scores are not meant to be the final word. There’s a reason that the “red” part of the tool’s color bar says, “Stop and Think,” rather than “Do Not Use.”  

Stopping to think about a teaching resource – whether it’s the Mississippi declaration or a “classic” of children’s literature – means asking yourself questions. These might include: 

Why am I considering this resource? Am I considering how this will affect my marginalized students? What do I hope students will take away? If I hope that they will critically examine it, how will I support them? What other resources should I pair it with? “

In this case, a teacher might want students to read the Mississippi declaration so that they can draw their own conclusions about the causes of the Civil War. That teacher might bundle the declaration with other documents to encourage students to think critically about the idea (present in many textbooks even today) that “states’ rights” (other than states’ rights to have legal slavery) caused the conflict. They might even pair the documents with this video from Vox, which shows how history about the Civil War has been intentionally distorted. Teachers could also supplement with abolitionist documents showing that the racist views expressed in the declaration were not universally held at the time. 

Original historical documents are essential to teaching the often-difficult truths about history. But they’re not the best fit for the CARE Review Tool. Instead, use the tool to evaluate teaching resources whose alignment to the CARE principles is less clear, particularly those that may appear, on their surface, to be objective or neutral when it comes to race. And share the results of your review with others, so we can continue to build the CARE Library!