History and Current Issues for the Classroom

Tag: revolutions

Pursuing Happiness: Whose American Revolution?

Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the words that established an independent United States. It is these values that many continue to point to as essential to the nature of the country—the promise of existence as human, the assurance of freedom from tyranny, the right to pursue wellness. They are supreme ideals, a foundation of justice and equality upon which to build a society. But, the idea that these rights should extend to all humans is relatively new to U.S. history—the founding fathers did not intend for the full extension of the Declaration of Independence to colonial women, native peoples, or enslaved or free people of African descent.

In fact, in July 1852, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and orator, called attention to the fact that people of African descent continued to be denied the rights inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. By continuing slavery, the U.S. government did not merely fail to deliver the basic rights to enslaved people, it actively prevented these people from being able to obtain life, liberty, or wellness.  “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” said Douglass. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

[A transcription of the speech can be found here.]

Truly, independence did not belong to all people. It certainly did not belong to all people in the former colonies in 1783. The peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and acknowledged the autonomy of the colonists also ignored land rights of native peoples (allowing them to be seen as “foreign nations” by the new U.S. government) and characterized black people as property. The new nation did not affirm the liberty of women of any race or ethnicity.

In fact, the Revolution itself, which we often view as an inevitable and logical response to the tyranny of British government, did not belong to all people in North America either. The common focus on the words of Jefferson and Paine, the idealistic commitment in action of Paul Revere and George Washington, and the engagement of crowds to fight British taxation often belies that “pursuit of happiness” in the colonies did not always take the form of allegiance to the patriots.

Some notable members of the "Sons of Liberty," a name given to some groups of colonial patriots leading the fight for independence.

Notable members of the “Sons of Liberty,” a name given to some groups of colonial patriots leading the fight for independence. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).

For many white colonists, objection to taxation without representation did not necessitate a desire for independence. Many, attached to their British identity and the safety of being part of a larger British empire in the face of competition from the French for land, fought as loyalists. Even some of those who fought with the patriots in Quebec, Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord did so hoping to gain better representation in Parliament or autonomy over colonial finance rather than a complete break from Britain.

For enslaved people, forms of government or taxation were largely irrelevant. Freedom from tyranny meant freedom from the bonds of slavery. Enslaved people selected their alliances based on who they believed would deliver this liberty. Some fought for the patriots, hoping that this would earn them the loyalty of a new government if independence were to occur. Others fought for the British, expecting that their service would be exchanged for freedom by a British government whose politics seemed to be drifting towards the prospect of abolition.

For native peoples, alliance-building was also a gamble. For native nations that aligned themselves with the patriots, promises of fuller autonomy after independence were key. For those aligned with the British, there was a reliance on a stronger hand from the metropole, which had typically restricted colonists’ expansion and the movement of the frontier.

Thinking beyond the patriotic language of the Sons of Liberty, we are forced to ask many more questions about American Independence. Whose Revolution was this? What was rebellion really about? What did “liberty” mean to different people in the colonies? How do we explain those who were “patriotic” to something other than the ideals of the patriots? How does this diversity of identity, political opinion, and economic interest help us understand the United States today?

These questions have profound importance for understanding the past and the future of the United States. Acknowledging that independence in the eighteenth century was incomplete helps show the reality of the United States being a continued work in progress. Freeing the country from the illusion that the pinnacle of justice and liberty was situated hundreds of years ago empowers learners to consider what the national goal should be, which of the principles of independence and revolution still need to be attained, and what we can learn from both the successes and limitations of the past. Examining how people in the revolutionary era made choices helps learners grapple with the options they face today.


Keep a look out for the new Choices curriculum unit, The American Revolution: Experiences of Rebellion, coming in 2016!
The unit considers how the varied populations of seventeenth and eighteenth century North America experienced and viewed colonization and revolution, encouraging students to step into the shoes of people in 1776 to debate the future of the thirteen colonies.
Watch our home page for the release of this unit.

More on Frederick Douglass’s speech.
More on black loyalists.

A Changing Cuba

Since December 17, 2014, when Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would normalize relations after over fifty years without any diplomatic ties, Cuba has dominated U.S. headlines. Some people see this historic shift as the latest in a series of short, dramatic periods of change that characterize Cuban history—starting with Cuba’s struggles for independence from Spain and U.S. occupation at the turn of the twentieth century to the Cuban Revolution of 1959 that continues to this day. These people view Cuba as a “place frozen in time,” characterized by vintage cars and crumbling buildings. But in reality, Cuba is constantly changing.

Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow

“Life in the Cuba of Tomorrow.” Bruce McCall, The New Yorker.

For instance, Netflix received a lot of attention earlier this year for announcing that it would make its TV and movie streaming service available in Cuba. The announcement was one of the first from many U.S. companies lining up to do business in Cuba as U.S. restrictions are lifted. As many critics noted, the Netflix announcement was primarily symbolic, for only about 5 percent of Cubans currently have full access to the global internet. Furthermore, Netflix would cost users $7.99 per month, which is almost half of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

But less well-known is that Cubans have been watching shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black for years, albeit illegally. Despite limited access to internet and outside media (both due to government censorship and the U.S. embargo), Cuban citizens have developed various strategies for accessing the news and entertainment they want. Many Cubans pay a small fee to receive what is called El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet), an external hard drive containing downloaded newspapers, movies, TV shows, music, sports, magazines, and other content produced in countries around the world. A new paquete is produced at the end of every week. Some have called this creative way of accessing media Cuba’s “offline internet.”

In addition to initiatives like el paquete that come from the Cuban people, the government has been making changes that originated well before negotiations to restore relations with the United States began. Since becoming Cuba’s president in 2008 after his brother Fidel stepped down from a nearly 50-year hold on power, Raúl Castro has passed a number of significant reforms, gradually but fundamentally transforming the Cuban economy and society. In this video interview with Choices, former research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Bustamante discusses some of these many reforms.


[mediacore height=”225″ public_url=”https://brown.mediacore.tv/media/what-economic-changes-did-raul-castro-make-when-he-became-president-of-cuba” thumb_url=”https://mediacorefiles-a.akamaihd.net/sites/11066/images/media/3622825l-AnZZfq0Z.jpg” title=”What economic changes did Raúl Castro make when he became president of Cuba in 2008?” width=”400″]


While the recent shift in U.S.-Cuba relations is indeed a major turning-point for Cuba, the country—both its people and its government—has not been idly waiting for the United States to change its policies before making changes of its own. Yet many questions remain about what Cuba’s future holds. How will the economic changes in Cuba affect ordinary Cubans across the island? Will these economic reforms be paired with greater political freedoms? Will Cubans still have access to free health care and education? How will Cuba relate to other countries, particularly the United States?


History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for CubaChoices new curriculum History, Revolution, and Reform: New Directions for Cuba helps students understand Cuba’s most recent economic, social, and political changes with a historical framework stretching back to the country’s precolonial past. The curriculum puts special emphasis on the many perspectives Cubans on the island have about their country’s history and its future.

Teaching Critical Reading and Persuasive Writing Skills with Choices’ French Revolution and Haitian Revolution units

By guest blogger Amy Howland, Academy of the Pacific Rim teacher and Choices Teaching Fellow

I work at the Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter School in Hyde Park, MA.  Our school is small, with just around 200 students in grades 9-12.  Most of our students will become the first to attend college in their families.  Over 70% of our students receive free or reduced lunch and for many, English is not their first language.  One of the many challenges that our students face is learning how to read and write at the college level.  As a result, our History department focuses much of its instructional time on teaching students how to read and write.  However, spending time teaching writing does not mean that I have to sacrifice important content or engaging activities; I still do all of that.  I find that Choices lends itself perfectly as the foundation for many reading and writing activities.  I love the Choices units because they help me to engage my students in civic dialogue and debate.   I also love the Choices units because they facilitate my ability to teach students how to read critically and write persuasively.

The 9th grade World History class recently finished a unit that combined the Choices units The French Revolution and The Haitian Revolution.  I used the text, many of the lessons, and the role plays as preparation for two major essays.  I will briefly highlight several ways in which I use these particular Choices units to teach reading and writing.

The unit plan. This is a 5-½ -week unit on Revolutions.  It asks students to construct a definition for revolution, and evaluate how each revolution impacted the lives of different people in each society.  The first essay had the students evaluate the impact of the French Revolution on the lives of the people in the different estates, while the second essay asked them to compare the two revolutions to evaluate which revolution had the greatest impact.  I treat the essay on the French Revolution as a “draft.”  In the second comparative essay, students must revise parts of their first essay on France and synthesize it with evidence from the Haitian Revolution.  For both essays I require that students only use the Choices texts to find their evidence.  The unit calendar below illustrates how I combine both units and their respective essay assessments.


Week of 9/10

Monday – What is a Revolution – How to read text – HW: rd. 1-6

Tuesday – Movie – HW: rd. pgs 7-11

Wednesday – Classes of French Society – HW: rd. pgs. 12-22

Thursday – Frances Financial Crisis – HW: rd. pgs. 23-25

Friday – Movie: French Revolution – The Fall of the Bastille- HW: Rd. Declaration of the Rights of Man

Week of 9/17

Monday – Declaration of the Rights of Man seminar – HW: Considering the options

Tuesday – Prep for Debate – HW: Finish debate prep

Wednesday – French Revolution Choices Debate – HW: Rd. pgs. 36-43

Thursday – Movie – HW: Rd. 44-50

Friday – French government graph – HW: study vocab quiz

Week of 9/24

Monday – Vocab quiz – systems map – HW: finish map

Tuesday – Essay Planning

Wednesday – Essay Writing – HW: Finish Essay

Thursday – Haiti in the News – HW: rd. 1-5 (Haitian Rev)

Friday – Map of European colonization – HW: rd. pgs. 6-10

Week of 10/1

Monday – Life in St. Domingue graph – HW: rd 11-18

Tuesday – Parties in Conflict – HW: pgs. 19-21 – Considering the options

Wednesday – Debate Prep – HW: Debate prep

Thursday – Haitian Revolution Choices Debate – HW: rd. 34-38

Friday – Mapping Independence – HW: rd. 39-43

Week of 10/8

Monday – Columbus Day – No School

Tuesday – Haiti independence – HW: Create a systems map

Wednesday – Discuss Systems Map – HW: Study Vocab

Thursday – Vocab Quiz – Organizing – HW: organizing

Friday – Organizing

Week of 10/15

Monday – Writing

Tuesday – Writing – HW: Essay Due Thursday

Reading Choices: I love that Choices provides clear, rigorous and dynamic texts full of quotes, images, and maps.  But in the beginning of the year many of the freshmen struggle with the reading level.  As a result, we spend the first several weeks learning how to decode the text.  First, I break each part of the reading in half and I give clear directions on how I expect them to actively read.   The active reading will not only allow them to follow along and access the text but it will facilitate their ability to find evidence for their essay.  As they actively read they must identify words they do not know, summarize the main points and ask questions, or comment on the text.  Additionally, I teach them how to use the headings to determine the main point of the text.

Activities:  I love the lessons and optional lessons that Choices provides, especially the particular graphic organizers that accompany some lessons.  Struggling readers and writers need to learn how to categorize information that allows them to break down the text to understand key concepts.  I connect these graphic organizers to the essay prompt.  For example, the prompt asks students to explain how the French Revolution changed the lives of the different social classes in France.  There is an excellent graphic organizer that breaks down each social class in pre-revolutionary France and has students consider what their role in France was at the time.  Students are then able to go back and use this information on their essay.

The Role Play:  The role play is the corner stone of a Choices unit.  It never fails to engage every single student in a lively dialogue about the future of France or the Colony of St. Domigue.  In fact, after each role play there is always one other 9th grade teacher who tells me that the students were so excited about the role play that they continued debating as they walked into their next class.  They are the perfect launching pad for teaching civic dialogue, but the role play can also become a tool to teach students about persuasive writing.  To prepare for the role play, I create worksheets that have students identify the claim or main argument of their option. They must also identify and record supporting evidence from both the options as well as the background readings.  I am explicit that this is exactly what they will do for their essay.  As the students debate they must record the other option groups’ arguments and supporting evidence.  This activity can stand alone as a lesson about building a persuasive argument but it could also be used with the Choices’ “Option 5” lesson to expand it into an essay.

Additional Activities:  In addition to the materials provided by Choices, I also use the French Revolution DVD by the History Channel, which follows the events of the revolution and the rise and fall of Robespierre.  I show clips of the movie every other day, which helps students to visualize the material they have just read about.  I also conduct Socratic seminars using the primary sources provided in the Choices curriculum.  This allows students, especially those who struggle with the challenging text in a primary source, to understand it.  Part of the seminar discussion is devoted to talking about how students might use the source in their essay.

Conclusion: As pressure to teach writing in the History classroom increases, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or worry that important content will have to be sacrificed.   The solution is not hard to find.  Choices units fit neatly into units focused on delivering rigorous content, engaging students in active debate, and teaching important literacy skills.

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