Teaching both Connecticut and Afro-American history to sixth-graders last year, I began to question the wisdom of teaching the two subjects separately. Students’ questions in class often revealed their attempts to relate the two main parts of their social studies work. The student who asked if Jonathan Trumbull was Black and the student who wanted to know where Connecticut’s plantations had been were both searching for a way to understand one subject in the context of the other. It was impossible for them to do it with any accuracy because they had learned so little about Blacks in Connecticut.
In this unit I explore ways to tie Afro-American history into our study of Connecticut. Even though this approach eliminates a study of plantation slavery and other topics in Black history which I’ve taught in previous years, it gives students a better grounding in their state’s history. With their knowledge of Blacks in Connecticut as a basis for comparison, the different situations of Blacks in other parts of America should be clearer to them.
Also, the development of Connecticut’s social, legal and political institutions is much easier for students to understand if they can study the relationships of real people to those institutions. Consequently, the emphasis of this unit is on personal studies from each of several critical periods in Connecticut’s development.
This unit is the first part of a unit which will span the entire period of Connecticut’s Black history. It begins with the colonial era and ends with the abolition of slavery in Connecticut in 1848. The period from 1848 to the present will be the subject of a later unit.
Since there is always the concern of giving students practice in a variety of language and reference skills, I have designed this unit around a student activity booklet. The activity booklet, which is available at the Institute library, provides students with a series of discrete units, each centering on an episode from a significant period in Connecticut and Black history. Accompanying the narrative are a number of assignments designed to develop students’ skills in using maps, graphs and outlines and in understanding and generalizing what they read.
I chose this approach for another reason besides its emphasis on skill development. Students, at least sixth graders, don’t really learn well by listening to lectures, and I don’t enjoy lecturing. The different episodes in their activity booklets are excellent focal points for discussions. Students will raise their own questions in trying to understand how the lesson in their activity booklet relates to what they have been learning about Connecticut.
The study of Connecticut is a year-long endeavor in sixth-grade social studies, and the activity booklet is designed to be used periodically throughout much of the year. The main reason I would not recommend using it as one unit is that much of the immediate impact of the episodes is lost that way. When the activity booklet is used in conjunction with other lessons on Connecticut, it complements them rather than appearing as an afterthought.
Before teaching anything, it is important to know what you expect the students to learn. This unit touches on so many areas of historiographical controversy that that question is one of vital importance here. The following discussion of Connecticut Black history provides both a background for teachers to use in working with the activity booklet and reveals my own bias in selecting and writing the episodes contained in the booklet.