The US Constitution and the Role of Women

Merry belated Christmas and Happy New Year to those who read this blog!  Those who might be upset by my saying Merry Christmas just know that I am just trying to share my joy for a season I hold dear to my heart.  It is no different than when someone wishes me a Happy Hanukkah or Happy Diwali.  We are all just trying to show everyone that we wish them the best for the season.  Even if you just enjoyed the lights around town, I hope the last month was fun as you prepared in your own way for the new year!  

When I teach American history, I really enjoy looking at the Constitution as the beautiful and brilliant document that it is.  I always have the students break the Constitution down in different ways and understand the concepts that are in the document themselves.  This year I had the privilege of helping my classes work through a simulation of the Constitutional Convention, which covered many of the main concepts.  I also had the students look at the real document versus the one that they created during the simulation and had them compare the differences.  It was a great experience for everyone that engaged the students in so many different ways, but that is for a different post.

In years past, I have usually done notes that explain how the convention worked, who was involved, and the failures of the convention.  This year, I wanted to do something that was different and more engaging.  I also wanted to break things down in a way that would allow for a closer look at those who had been left out of the process of creating the constitution and those who were disenfranchised after the convention.  The focus of the post will be what I did regarding women and the status of women during this time period.

I searched around and discovered that despite the amount of scholarship that has been done over the years little has been created by large companies to address these issues.  So I was largely on my own, but I kept racking my brain and remembered that Abigail Adams once had a large amount of correspondence with her husband that included the role women should play in the new government.  I knew that the letters would provide an intelligent analysis and add another voice to the usual conversation.  So I began looking for a way to teach Abigail Adams to my students.

I ended up finding a treasure trove of document based questions from the America in Class website.  This site has a ton of document based questions and many of them are created by historians that know their craft.  I chose to use the one that utilized letters from Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams for my advanced students and my Humanities Magnet students.  The letters themselves came before the writing of the Constitution, but I felt they related the thoughts of women who were probably hoping that they would be included in the great democratic experiment.

The lesson took two days and my advanced students need help and more scaffolding than the Humanities students did.  The language used by Abigail Adams is difficult for 8th graders in general, but the information and the discussion it generated was invaluable.  I think that if I am going to do this lesson again I am going to reduce the number of questions associated with the documents and reduce the documents as well for my advanced class.

Below is my rough outline for the lesson:
Day 1:
1.    I gave the students the packet and we did a general warm up to get them thinking about who was excluded from the whole process. 
2.    Then we spent about a day going through the first couple of documents and they worked together in table groups. 
3.    I worked around the room and helped students as they needed it and discussed with the individual groups about what they were reading and their individual responses to what she was imploring her husband to do. 
4.    I gave an exit card to see where we were.  (The Advanced students had a really difficult time and all asked for more help there)

Day 2: 
1.     I gave them all a small half sheet with John Adams’ response to his wife’s letters so he could speak for himself.  This patronizing response caused many of the students to look on in disbelief and many of them became angry.  I think John Adams’ poll numbers dropped in my classes that day. 
2.    The students then worked through the questions and the rest of the documents.  (For advanced I did it as a class and I reduced the number of documents.) 
3.    The entire period I worked with students and helped them answer the questions about the documents and tried to help them extend their thinking.  The questions were difficult and pushed them to really get deep into the documents. 
4.    After the students were done I had them write a paragraph response to the question at the top of the page where they had to write a three pronged thesis. 

Overall, my classes did well on the thesis statements and the supports for their statements were pretty spectacular.  I think in the future I might cut some of the questions out that were a little redundant or that didn’t make as much sense.  I did like how the questions got the students to interact with the text in a deeper way.  I also liked how the girls in the class seemed to enjoy learning about how women were treated during this period and how engaged they became with the lesson.  I think my favorite quote was from a student who said, “Man, she is just roasting them!”

How do you all teach those who were left out of the constitution?  I'd love to hear about it!  And, again, I hope you all have a great 2016!

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