Witness Stones Learning Activity Overview
The aim of the Witness Stones Project is to restore the history and honor the humanity and contributions of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities. We shine a light on on a part of our history when justice, equality, and inclusion was withheld from members of our community. We do this by engaging students in the historical process of using primary documents to create biographical sketches to tell those stories often lost to history.
The project uses a foundation of historical research done in Connecticut focusing on local slavery, with the desire to uncover the stories of those captives who were essential to colonial and early American life in New England. The Witness Stones are memorials in honor of these past vital members of society. On top of this, there is no better way for these stories to be presented/told, but through a journey in which 8th graders will be exposed to the skill of analyzing primary documents, writing biographical sketches, and ultimately educating the public through an installation ceremony in which they share their findings as cohesive stories
The project not only allows students to discover slavery not as an institution that happened somewhere else (or was solely concentrated in the South), but as a wrongdoing that was local, common, and that has been generally erased from our histories. Furthermore, This project enables students to use primary sources to create histories of those who enslaved locally, and to present their findings at a public installation project.
Working with local schools and historical societies, this project is spreading across southern New England, engaging students in inquiry based learning, and with differentiated activities that allow students to participate and lead in civic engagement activities associated with the installation of the Witness Stones in their communities.
The Witness Stones Project is is only able to spread to new towns and cities through community and school support and through the professional workshops given by Witness Stones Project. This summer we conducted a teacher workshop for two new school districts which included local historians, educators, and authors. This workshop was generously funded by Connecticut Humanities and has allowed the project to spread to the cities of West Hartford and Middletown.
The Witness Stones Project can provide workshops to interested schools and historic groups to bring the project to your community. (Research workshops can also be given to communities to explore the local historical resources, necessary documents, and anecdotes that will allow the stories to be created by the students.)
The project in the classroom is comprised of two sections and can be done in either the social studies class alone, or as a collaboration between the social studies and language arts classes. The activities are the Slavery Jigsaw and the Biographical Sketch. Please see the details about these activities below.
Activity 1 – Slavery Jigsaw
A Jigsaw activity is a method used for students to become experts in particular aspects, or a piece of a project or unit. This also entails an activity where each student, or group ultimately presenting their findings to the remainder of the class. At the conclusion of the presentations, the class should have a full understanding of the whole project when all the pieces of the Jigsaw are shared and connected.
In the Witness Stones Project, the Jigsaw activity is the method developed to familiarize students with the use of primary document but more importantly, the Five Themes of Slavery. For the primary documents, the students will access property records, wills, probate inventories, census data, church records, and vital records necessary for the analysis of slavery in colonial and early America. The second aspect of the Jigsaw is for students to apply the Five Themes of Slavery as the lenses to use to make meaning of the primary and secondary documents. These themes are:
- Treatment of the Enslaved
- Economics of Slavery
- Agency and Resistance
Students will be placed in groups and assigned one of the five themes. Their objective will be to explain to the other groups in the class (using Google Slides or PowerPoint) how their theme can be found, analyzed, and described referencing the primary documents selected for the activity. At the end of the activity, students will have a working understanding of how to extract information from different types of primary documents and how the Five Themes can be used to organize and understand slavery.
The Witness Stones Project will provide the Witness Stones Jigsaw Activity Curriculum Materials to schools and historical societies wishing to participate in the Witness Stones Project workshops.
Activity 2 – Biographical Sketch
The Biographical Sketch is a three to five page biography of the locally enslaved person who is chosen to be memorialized through the Witness Stones Project in your community. The project is designed so that the sketch is written by students after they have completed the Jigsaw activity. Some schools may determine whether to have this writing activity take place in language arts class, and/or to remain in the same class the Jigsaw activity was completed. Students would benefit from biographical writing instruction in language arts class prior to preparing this sketch.
The sketch activity will include digitized versions of the primary and secondary documents that will be used to tell the life story of the chosen individual. These may include selected research about historical events like the Triangle Trade, the Middle Passage, the West Indian Trade, and colonial or state, statutes concerning slavery. Students will be expected to prepare notes and extract quotes from these documents, focussing on the Five Themes and information for a narrative arc (from birth to death if available). The theme of agency is critical in “restoring the history and honoring the humanity” of the person selected and should be fully fleshed out in the writing.
This student activity can be done individually or in small groups. In schools with more than one academic team per grade, it has worked out well to have one enslaved person as the subject of the sketch per team (although a whole school subject to memorialize would be a great way for teachers to develop and share their experiences using common research and documents).
In preparation for the installation activity, the top essays are selected by the language arts and history teachers, and possibly local historians. It is important for the students voices to be heard, but it is still expected that students correct factual and grammatical errors. These chosen essays will be used to build a collection of biographies of locally enslaved persons.
The Witness Stones Project will provide the Witness Stones Biographical Sketch Activity Curriculum Materials to schools and historical societies wishing to participate in the Witness Stones Project workshops.
The installation ceremony is the civic engagement driven part of the Witness Stones Project. Students, faculty, administrators, public officials, parents, and the public are invited to participate in the ceremony. Clergy, musicians, and project sponsors might also be invited. A souvenir program should be created listing the schedule of events, student essays, the keynote address, information about the Witness Stones Project in your community, and the names of all of the students involved in the project.
The installation ceremony should end with the community going to the sites where the stones are to be installed. Over the last year, installation ceremonies have been held on a village green, at a Congregational Church, and in a middle school gym. Speeches were given by students, parents, town leaders, superintendents, state representatives and senators, and a descendent of locally enslaved persons. Each of the ceremonies, although different, were engaging and inspiring to the students and community members in attendance.
If you are interested in bringing the Witness Stones Project to your community, please go to the Witness Stones Project in Your Community page and review the details for the next steps.
Please Contact Us if you would like further information.