Well-researched and well-prepared describes the students in American history teacher Trish Watson’s class. The group embarked on their first Harkness discussion of the year, a student-led discussion-based class that allows the students to control the ebb and flow of the class, exchange ideas, and make connections with one another.
Since this was the group’s first foray into a Harkness-style class this year, Watson gave some parameters to guide the discussion. Each student represented an early American colony (Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia), and the students prepared an opening statement about their colony’s history, politics, and development. They were charged with coming to class to analyze the effects or outcomes of his or her colony's impact on the shaping of our nation. “We want to get to a point where we want to go beyond the textbook understanding of the economics of slavery to recognizing the hardships of our decisions back then,” Watson said.
Watson told the class to practice different skills from reacting to other’s comments, organizing and leading, making connections, or asking for clarification about research. She helped prod the discussion with penetrating questions challenging the students to think critically as a colonial delegate representing the needs and wants of their constituents based on economic or religious dynamics.
The questions included:
•How did the leaders within each region help shape the political, economic and social change?
•What religious beliefs and events shaped your colony and what modern connections can you discuss?
•How did slavery shape our nation? What aspects of your colony reinforced or discouraged slavery?
The students uncovered fascinating facts about the early colonies: 41% of the city households in New York owned slaves. Virginia had a complex history involving various religious-affiliated groups from Anglicans, Baptists, and Presbyterians.
After the discussions, the students reviewed what aspects of the discussion went well (everyone contributed, well-prepared opening statements, supporting facts) and areas that needed to improve. Judging from the level of involvement and deep research from their initial discussions, the next Harkness in Watson’s class will be a stellar one.