Learning from the Source: Close Reading in Service of a Cause
Close reading is an opportunity to read and reread thoughtfully and with purpose. By breaking down the analysis of texts and other primary sources into distinct chunks, you can increase rigor and help students more easily climb the staircase of complexity required by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In this primary source activity students will look closely and critically at images in conjunction with historical and contemporary texts. They will compare and contrast point of view, details, claims, evidence, and reasoning as they learn about the purpose of John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry and consider whether or not his actions were justified in the historical context. Students will then debate whether the use of force or violence in service of a cause can ever be justified.
- Model close reading with students if necessary; take a look at these close reading markup strategies.
- Do NOT provide students with any background information, including identifying John Brown, until after they have completed the image analysis portion of the activity.
- Each group should receive one set of images and one text from each of the three categories.
- Most of the texts are excerpts of longer documents; links to the full texts are included.
- Take a look at the activity extension ideas before implementing this activity.
- Image set 1 (eyes | portrait | bibliographic record)
- Image set 2 (eyes | portrait | bibliographic record)
- Image set 3 (eyes | portrait | bibliographic record)
- Image set 4 (eyes | portrait | bibliographic record)
- Image set 5 (eyes | portrait | bibliographic record)
- Trial indictment 1a
- Trial indictment 1b
- Trial indictment 2
- Trial indictment 3
- Frederick Douglass 1881 summary of events
- John Brown prison interview
- “A Plea for Captain John Brown” by Henry D. Thoreau
- Prosecution closing arguments
- John Brown address to the court
- “John Brown: An Address by Frederick Douglass” Storer College, Harper’s Ferry, WV, 1881
- “Today’s Fanatic, Tomorrow’s Saint” The Guardian comment section Nov. 30, 2009
- “The 9/11 OF 1859” New York Times opinion section Dec. 1, 2009
- “Freedom’s Martyr” New York Times opinion section Dec. 1, 2009
- “John Brown: America’s First Terrorist?” National Archives Prologue Magazine Spring 2011
- Transcript: The Abolitionists, PBS American Experience History Television Series, 2013
- Take a close look at the image of the eyes. Consider the questions below, then come up with four words that describe this person.
- What details do you notice?
- What do these details tell you about this person?
- What sense of this person do you get from this image?
- Discuss your findings with your group and, together, list the four words that best describe the person with these eyes. Write these four words on the back of the image.
- Collaborate with your group to finish the portrait of this person. You may take turns drawing or one person may draw, but ALL must contribute ideas.
- Get together with another group and share your portraits. Ask your partner group what words they would use to describe the person. Are the words they chose similar to the ones your group chose?
- Together with your original group, take a close look at the full portrait of the person.
- What do you notice first?
- Describe what else you see.
- Review the bibliographic record, then use that information and the image itself as you consider the questions below.
- What type of image is this (photo, painting, illustration, etc.)?
- Are there details that suggest the time period this image relates to? Is the creation date listed in the bibliographic record? If the creation date is listed, was this image created at or around the same time period the image relates to?
- Why do you think this image was made? What might have been the creator’s purpose? What evidence supports your theory?
- Who do you think was the audience for this image?
- What do you think the creator might have wanted the audience to think or feel? Does the arrangement or presentation (lighting, angle, etc.) of the details affect how the audience might think or feel? How?
- What do you feel when looking at this image?
- What questions does this image leave you with?
- In your groups, take turns reading the Harpers Ferry text you received.
- Summarize what happened using a bulleted list to briefly explain the key events and people described.
- Share what you found with the class to determine what happened at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in October, 1859.
- Take turns reading the historical text you received. Discuss how this document characterizes John Brown. Find four words used in the text to describe John Brown. How do these words compare with the words your group used to characterize the image of John Brown that you analyzed?
- Read the text again closely, making note of the arguments the author makes and the evidence used to support those arguments. Note specific words or phrases that help shape the meaning and tone of the arguments.
- Look at the bibliographic information. What can you learn about the text and the author from that information? What else would you like to know about the text, the author, or both?
- Repeat steps 4-6 with the contemporary text you received.
- Compare and contrast the characterizations of John Brown made by each text. In what ways are they alike or different?
- Refer back to the texts to compare and contrast the arguments made by each source. In what ways are the arguments alike or different? Which text makes a more forceful argument? Why?
- Team up with representatives from each of the other groups and relay the findings of your text analyses.
- As a group, identify John Brown’s cause, then debate the following question: Based on your analyses of the texts, was John Brown justified in his actions at Harper Ferry in service of his cause? Why or why not? What other information might help you to answer this question more conclusively?
- Share your group’s deliberations in a whole class discussion.
Direct student groups to investigate a contemporary event where force or violence ensued, summarizing what happened and why they think it happened citing evidence to support their claims. Then, as a class, consider the following: Can the use of force or violence in service of a cause ever be justified? Why not or why under what conditions or circumstances?
English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grades 6-8
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.10 By the end of grade 8, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 6–8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grades 9-10
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.8 Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.9 Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.10 By the end of grade 10, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 9–10 text complexity band independently and proficiently.
English Language Arts Standards » History/Social Studies » Grades 11-12
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
- CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.10 By the end of grade 12, read and comprehend history/social studies texts in the grades 11–CCR text complexity band independently and proficiently.
English Language Arts Standards » Speaking & Listening » Grades 6-12
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Activity extension ideas
- Divide the Harpers Ferry headlines from PBS among students after the image analyses but before the text analyses have been completed to see how much they can deduce about what happened in Harpers Ferry in October, 1859.
- Have students compare and contrast these different versions of “Glory Hallelujah” or “John Brown’s Song” (version 1 | version 2 | version 3 | version 4). Then have them compare the depiction of John Brown in those with the depiction of Brown in “John Brown’s entrance into hell.
- Read about the History of “John Brown’s Body” (from PBS).
- Read historical newspaper articles and investigate other primary sources about John Brown.