I start the class by asking everyone to say something about their thoughts and feelings about history: What does it mean to you? Do you think there is value in studying history and why or why not? How have you felt about learning history in the past? Are there ways that you have learned about history other than in school? The discussion often becomes an animated debate between those who see history as important to their cultural identity and those who find it irrelevant to current issues in their lives. The students usually raise questions about who decides what constitutes history and the type of history that is taught in most high schools. I use the discussion as a way to introduce social history and active learning approaches as the basis for this class. I ask the students to take notes to compare their thoughts now and again at the end of the course.
For the in-class activity the students break into five small groups. Each group is given several primary documents on one topic to read, discuss, and report back to the full class. The documents cover the nature of womens work among Native-American tribes in New England, indentured servants in the Middle Colonies, slaves in Virginia, Puritan settlers in Massachusetts, and apprentices in Pennsylvania. The goal of the activity is for the students to become acquainted with primary sources, begin to interpret them, see various possible interpretations, and pass on to other students what they have learned. It also provides an overview of European, African-American, and Native-American womens life and labor during the contact period.