Every semester, I try something new in my classroom. Recently, I’ve been working on decentering my courses in various ways, specifically through the use of active learning assignments. These involve assignments such as my archives project or creating more student centered discussion through the questions I pose in class. This summer, I taught a minimester course in early American literature. Essentially, we met 24 straight days for a month. Because of the protracted time I had with students, I decided against using the archives project (I did have them visit the archives). In its place, I chose to take students to the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and write a reflective response or create a multimedia response to the trip. We spent the day after our trip to discuss what we saw. Students, as well, created a Google Doc to share their experiences in order to help with the paper or project. For this assignment, I took cues partly from Margaret Mulrooney’s recent post about her use of digital commonplace books in her course.
Kevin Sacco’s Josephine (2017) is poignant and moving. Told only through sepia colored panels, without words, the semi-autobiographical Josephine centers on a seven year-old protagonist as he navigates Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the 1960s, guided in part by his Black caretaker, Josephine. Josephine is, as Sacco notes, a melding together “of my caretakers. . . Leonora, Cleo, Mildred, Louise, and Josephine.” Through Josephine, Sacco’s tale explores familial relationships and racial relations in America, specifically New York, during the 1950s and 1960s.
Last semester, I added selections from Philip Freneau and Henry Wadsworth Longefellow to my syllabus. We only read about 3-4 poems from each author and explored them in relation to the trope of the “Vanishing American,” defining American, and the issue of slavery. As I do with most classes, I assign questions to small groups of students, 2-3 typically, give them time to answer the questions, then we discuss their answers as a class. This semester, when covering Freneau and Longfellow, I started thinking more about selections from Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery (1842), and that is what I want to talk about today.