Coming of the American Revolution, 1764–1776
Created and maintained by the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
Reviewed May-June, 2012.
As educators increasingly rely on online sources and activities for teaching, numerous organizations have created resources to ease access to historical documents and better convey an understanding of the past. Two such examples, Coming of the American Revolution, 1764–1776, and Mission US, provide a rich set of resources for students in middle school and high school history courses.
Coming of the American Revolution is aimed primarily at students and teachers in Massachusetts. (The Web site conforms to the Massachusetts Department of Education history and social science curriculum framework.) The site offers a wealth of “newspapers, official documents, and personal correspondence” from the Massachusetts Historical Society collections and promises that “you will immerse yourself in the past and discover the fears, friction, and turmoil that shaped these tumultuous times.”
The site’s content is organized in two ways. First, there are fifteen topics arranged in chronological order from the 1764 Sugar Act to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, each including a brief essay, an excerpt from a contemporary merchant’s diary, and in-text links to documents offering examples or more information. Documents are available both as images of the original and as a transcription to aid students who may have difficulty deciphering eighteenth-century handwriting. To guide student engagement, the site offers a “document analysis worksheet” that prompts students to think about a document’s historical context and meaning. For teachers, the site offers a second system through which to approach the material: nine lesson plans drafted by educators in the Boston area. These conceptual lessons integrate goals and objectives around core era-centered questions about the extent of protest, the struggle between patriots and Loyalists, and around broader questions about the historical method. Each lesson integrates these activities thoroughly with the materials available on the site (and elsewhere online). Coming of the American Revolution seems most appropriate for older students, particularly high school and college students, because of its direct engagement with complicated and often-dense primary sources.
At the same time, the site—particularly the lessons—could more effectively contextualize the role of Boston, the most radicalized city in the colonies during the imperial crisis between 1763 and 1775. A clearer acknowledgment that political and social circumstances developed differently in other major cities such as New York and Philadelphia would help students understand the uniqueness and importance of Boston as an engine of imperial protest. Lastly, the bibliography of sources on the Revolution is, unfortunately, significantly out of date. While it includes now-classic texts written by Bernard Bailyn, Gordon S. Wood, and Pauline Maier in the 1960s and 1970s, it excludes recent scholarship from authors such as T. H. Breen, Benjamin Carp, and Richard Archer on Boston and its role in the Revolution. Engaging these new perspectives would enliven both the topical discussions and the lessons.
Mission US is aimed at a slightly younger audience, primarily children in fifth through eighth grade. Developed by the New York City public television station wnet, the site offers American historical instruction through game play. Currently there are two “missions” from which to choose, each aligning with elements of the National Standards for History Basic Education (1996). The first, “For Crown or Colony?” puts students in the shoes of a young apprentice in the Boston printing office of the radical political leader Benjamin Edes in 1770. The game opens just a few weeks before the Boston Massacre, and the student, playing the role of the apprentice who is newly arrived from the countryside, finds himself at the center of the disputes. In “Flight to Freedom” the student plays as Lucy, a fourteen-year-old slave on a Kentucky plantation during the late 1840s, who escapes and joins a group of abolitionists in Ohio. The game proceeds past the second stage of play only if Lucy successfully reaches free territory, something that the true-to-life game makes incredibly difficult. (It took this reviewer five tries to reach the third stage.) The site offers teachers extensive background documentation totaling over three hundred pages for each mission, including suggestions for how to integrate the games into lesson plans and, crucially, “cheat sheets” that explain the narrative of each mission.
The games thoroughly immerse students in the lives of characters close to their own age and force them to address the challenges and questions faced by so many during the eras of the Revolution and slavery. “For Crown or Colony?” not only skillfully synthesizes information about the work of an apprentice but also carefully delineates the political cleavages that rocked Boston in the early 1770s. “Flight to Freedom” may be even more impressive as it weaves together details about life on plantations, the perils of the Underground Railroad, the conflicting missions of abolitionists, a procolonization office seeker, the separation of families, and the impact of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—just to name a few. Each mission pays close attention to historical detail, such as through a demonstration of the dramatic effects of slave literacy. Early in the game, players are shown documents with numerous words blurred out of them because Lucy has limited reading skills. As she proceeds, picking up “literacy badges” as she learns, more and more words appear on the documents. The only limit to the missions' instructional use is their depth and complexity. It takes several hours of game play to fully progress through all five stages plus the prologue and the epilogue. Thus, using the games in the classroom requires the ability to focus on the subject for at least a week.
Each site provides valuable resources for students in middle and high school, and perhaps even in introductory college courses. The challenge will be to keep the game material fresh and the essays updated as scholarship progresses, and to provide appropriate accompanying materials for educators. As the sites stand now, they are enormously useful educational tools for teaching about the American Revolution, slavery, and the experiences of those who lived through them.
Joseph M. Adelman
Framingham State University