Frederick Douglass and I: writing to read and relate history with life among African American adolescents at a high poverty urban school
Purpose. Black history as represented in social studies textbooks often lacks depth demanded by historians and authenticity required for cultural relevance to African American students. However, important Black historical narratives sometimes contain difficult prose and refer to times or circumstances that are far removed from students’ life experiences. In consequence, primary history texts may be excluded, or when included, may be taught in ways that seem irrelevant or uninteresting. Premised in research-based connections among self-relevance, interest, and knowledge, this study employed Writing to Read and Relate (W2R) as an interest-enhancing tool for generating knowledge from primary texts. Method. Participants in this study were 37 African American 8th grade students from a single high-poverty urban school. These students were randomly assigned to one of two tutoring conditions for learning the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). W2R students outlined essays that compared their lives with that of Douglass, while Traditional Comprehension (TC) students learned vocabulary, reread passages, and rewrote segments in their own words. All students completed multiple measures of comprehension, knowledge, interest, and volition. Results. W2R students demonstrated significantly greater growth in cumulative knowledge about Douglass, evaluated Douglass’ circumstances as more self-relevant, and more often demonstrated their interest and volition by choosing to complete an extra-credit project focusing on Frederick Douglass. In addition, teacher reports indicated that W2R students demonstrated their interest through spontaneous student-initiated discussions about Douglass’ Narrative in and outside of their social studies class. Finally, W2R students comprehension performance did not differ significantly from that of TC students. Conclusions. W2R students outperformed TC students on measures of knowledge, interest, and volitional motivation—motivation that generalized to their classroom. As such, W2R has potential for teaching Black history to African American students in a way that is both academically rigorous and personally relevant—a method that is both good to students and good for them.