Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The $7 bill assignment

As you well know, teaching controversial topics can be tricky. Negative, knee-jerk reactions from students do little to broaden their understanding of American history and hamper their intellectual growth. I have devised a small assignment to encourage my students to carefully examine “unpleasant” individuals and groups that influenced American history.

The assignment is below:
In this assignment, you will choose an individual or group to go on the "new" $7 bill.  The individual or group you chose must be the kind of people who would never appear on American currency. This individual or group of individuals must have been an American(s) and contributed something to the way we understand American history. They can be from any time between the end of Reconstruction and the present. Their contribution did not have to be positive, just significant. Look to the textbook, your lecture notes, and even the primary sources on Scholar for inspiration.

The first paragraph should be a biographical sketch of the individual or group. Who are they? What did they do?
The second paragraph should be a recognition of why this person or group are a poor choice for immortalization on American money (i.e. Explain why people in 2014 would freak out if this were ever proposed).
The third paragraph should explain why you think putting them on currency is a good idea. Was the contribution important but overlooked? Does this person or group force us remember negative or tumultuous things about our history? You must also describe the "image" that would be on the back of the $7 bill (Hint: pick an important place or event to the person's or group's contribution to American history).

This assignment is more than a pro/con exercise. It encourages the students to acknowledge current cultural responses to these issues while placing them in a historical context. One of the reasons why I like keeping the parameters of the assignment vague is that it gives each student the opportunity to intellectually process something important to them, as students often pick individuals or groups with whom they identify or ones they truly hate.  We then have a follow-up discussion in which students talk about their choices and explain why their choice should be elevated to the national stage and how the “new” $7 bill would complicate the American public’s understanding of the past.

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