What causes a revolution? And how do you write a good paragraph?

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We began our unit on the American Revolution this week! I’ve been learning and re-learning American history since, er, well for a long time, and I still get excited about this stuff. Self-evident truths! All men are created equal! (Okay yeah, we’ll come back around to that one.) I know its clichéd, but what can I say, I’m a sucker for a good national narrative and/or an HBO miniseries.

So how to teach this material that everyone seems to already know everything about? Because considering causality is a primary historical thinking skill, I tend to begin units with questions of causation—why is this thing happening at this moment in time?

Which is, happily, one of the central historical problems with the American Revolution: WHY? Colonists revolted because they didn’t want taxation without representation? Okay, I guess, except that breaking from the world’s greatest colonial power was a really big deal and the colonists had been taxed for a pretty long time. Why revolt, and at that moment? To my point, I found a great quote from Duke professor/historian Edward Balleisen in the Business History Review:

Getting tens of thousands of colonials to act in concert, when they differed from one another in so many ways, when poor overland transportation dramatically limited their interactions, and when their chief point of connection was a shared identification with England, constituted no mean feat.

Yes. One of the misconceptions that students come to colonial American history with is the presumption that the colonists all thought of themselves as pre-Americans and that they were just waiting to unify as American patriots and fight the Man/mother country together. No. Actually, historians think that American colonials felt way more British than anything else: Bostonians had less in common with Charlestonians than they did with Londoners. So the historical conundrum is, why revolution, and why now? What caused the colonists to band together at that particular historical moment? 

That was my essential question for the first part of this unit. More generally, I wanted to get my students to an understanding that events and phenomenons have multiple causes, and that historians debate causality endlessly. Finally, my pre-assessment data suggested that we needed to work on paragraphs, and in particular on topic sentences and making analytical connections to a thesis statement.

So here’s what I did:

First I made two sets of three cups, labelled, respectively, GREAT AWAKENING, CONSUMERISM, and POLITICAL CULTURE. In each, I put slips of paper with facts/details about each of those broad categories, which in turn each relate to the cultural climate of the colonies leading up to the Revolution.

In class, I wrote, “The American Revolution broke out in part due to the cultural climate of the colonies during the mid-18th century,” on the board, along with the following instructions:

  1. Sit with a partner
  2. Read the evidence in your cup
  3. Write a topic sentence that reflects the evidence (and only the evidence) in the cup (and only the cup)
  4. Write 2-3 analytical sentences addressing how this evidence helps to answer today’s question
  5. Repeat for all three colored cups

For those who finished more quickly than others, I asked them to write a thesis statement encapsulating their analysis of the cups.

Not coincidentally, the cups all provide a piece of an answer to the question, “What caused the American Revolution?” Each one, the Great Awakening, consumerism, and political culture, corresponds to an actual historiographical argument—the idea is that the students are engaging with real arguments made by real historians, and then being asked to fit the factual material into that framework. This, I think, is more authentic to the discipline and also more interesting than me delivering a lecture.

One teacher whose work I’m really into has described this as allowing students to do the higher-order thinking work by doing the lower-order stuff for them. And just look at this higher-order product I got—a beautifully constructed thesis addressing the historiographical question of why the colonists chose to revolt:

A rise in consumerism, an increasingly active political culture, and the message of Great Awakening, caused a cultural shift that eventually led the American colonists to break from Great Britain.  

-One of my Brilliant Students

THAT IS THE RIGHT ANSWER! And they all came up with it on their own! Happy Friday!

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