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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Citing Evidence from Primary Sources to Support Arguments

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In LeRoy Votto’s classroom, students read, annotate, write about, and discuss Wendell Phillips’s speech “The Philosophy of the Abolitionist Movement.”

Teacher: LeRoy Votto

School: The Urban School of San Francisco (Private), San Francisco, CA

Grade: 10

Discipline: History (the Civil War)

Lesson Topic: The abolitionist movement and its message

Lesson Month: January

Number of Students: 14

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Understand and assess the ideals, belief, principles, and convictions of the abolitionists and evaluate the power, passion, and limitations of their message
  • Literacy/language objectives – Analyze and sustain a conversation about a primary source document; assesses, analyze, and speak knowledgably about the abolitionist movement; discuss how a social reform movement is created and sustained in the face of overwhelming public opinion, the established power of the state, and the entrenched power of public opinion and custom; assess the power of language in a democracy to mold public opinion (to convince, convert, and alienate); establish criteria for assessing social movements and change in general and throughout history
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Show an eagerness and ability to converse about issues and ideas; understand the power of language and how an argument is framed and constructed

Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

    Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
    Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.

Instruction Details:

The Unit
The focus of this two-week unit was abolitionism. The goal was for students to develop a deep understanding and arrive at their own conclusions about the nature of the abolitionist movement exclusively through the study of primary source documents. In this class, every topic is investigated exclusively through the study of primary source documents. Students read and annotate daily for homework and in class the following day, discuss their ideas to arrive at their own conclusions, and write about them.

Prior to this unit, students had explored the pro-slavery clauses of the Constitution, the place of slavery in the United States (in the economy, state and national politics, and the social system, including racism in the free North), and had recently completed reading and writing about Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The unit on abolitionism was an investigation on how the institution of slavery was being attacked by a small group of activists and social critics, most of whom were deeply committed fundamentalist Protestants at odds with the prevailing pro-slavery sentiment and institutions of the day. It was taught about halfway through the year. The lesson on Wendell Phillips’s speech “The Philosophy of the Abolitionist Movement” occurred on the fourth day of the unit. The unit following this focused on the politics of sectionalism and the oratory of Abraham Lincoln.

Before the Video

Prior to this lesson, students read, annotated, wrote about, and discussed the following primary sources:

  • On Day 1: Address to the Colonization Society by William Lloyd Garrison (The Park Street Church, Boston, July 4, 1829); and in class, David Walker’s “Appeal” (1829)
  • On Day 2: William Lloyd Garrison’s inaugural editorial for the Liberator (Boston, January 1, 1831) and “Declaration of the National Anti-Slavery Convention” by William Lloyd Garrison (December 14, 1833)
  • On Day 3: First Women’s Antislavery Convention Meeting (New York, May 9–12, 1837) and excerpts from Angelina Grimke’s “An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States”

For homework on the night before the lesson, students read and annotated Wendell Phillips’s speech “The Philosophy of the Abolitionist Movement” (January 27, 1853).

During the Video
Students came to class with their annotations for Wendell Phillips’s speech. To “open up the topic,” Mr. Votto provided guiding questions for students to respond to in writing with explanation, analysis, and evidence. He wanted students to “anchor their ideas into the text.” To deepen their understanding, he had students share and discuss their ideas together in small groups of three and then as an entire class. The lesson ended with a recap and a preview of the next set of documents.

After the Video
After this lesson, students read, annotated, wrote about, and discussed the following primary sources:

  • African American Abolitionists: review of David Walker’s “Appeal” (1829)
  • Nat Turner’s Confessions (1831)
  • Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” speech of July 5, 1852
  • Excerpts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Chapter IX: “In Which It Appears That a Senator Is But a Man” by John Greenleaf Whittier)

The investigation of these primary sources led to a summative writing assignment for the unit in which students analyzed the abolitionist movement. Students built on this knowledge later in the year when they wrote an analysis of how the United States found its way into secession in the winter of 1860–1861, and again when they wrote an analysis of the Civil War.

Teacher Prep
To prepare for this lesson, Mr. Votto read and reread a number of abolitionist speeches and editorials and chapters from biographies of William Lloyd Garrison (by Henry Mayer), Wendell Phillips (by Irving Bartlett), Frederick Douglass (by William S. McFeely), and the Grimke Sisters (by Gerda Lerner).

Prior Knowledge
To participate in this lesson, students needed to know how to read and annotate a primary source document. They had already read and annotated many primary source documents in previous courses and were exposed to the idea of political passion while learning about the French Revolution in a 9th grade class. Mr. Votto’s Civil War course was designed to build one topic on top of another, and one reading on top of another, so that students built a deeper understanding with every document they read.

Differentiated Instruction
Mr. Votto added some notes to the primary source document to provide some context for portions of Wendell Phillips’s speech.

Group Interaction
Students discussed their thoughts on the abolitionist movement together in small groups and then as a whole class. As they expressed their ideas, they built off of the ideas of others. Mr. Votto encourages students to listen to each other in order to make these connections. He asked questions to guide the discussion, keep it moving, and elicit ideas from quieter students.

Resources and Tools


Formative Assessment
Mr. Votto assessed students on their preparedness for class based on their nightly reading and annotation. During class discussion, he looked for thoughtful contributions and attentive and engaged participation and assessed students on their understanding through reading comprehension and ability to identify core ideas, interpret material, and make connections. He read students’ daily writing assignments to see how they approached the primary source document and assessed them on precision and clarity, citing of evidence, and analytical depth.

Summative Assessment
At the end of the unit, students wrote a summative paper about the abolitionist movement.

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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4