Middle School Students Take a Critical Look at Meaning of Independence Day

By Elena Young

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

In their U.S. history class, 8th-grade students at Alice Deal Middle School (DC Public Schools) examined the historical significance of the Fourth of July through the lens of race.

Teacher Megan Huber used the reading from the Zinn Education Project, “Frederick Douglass: The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” and asked her students to identify at least three claims the night before. As the students walked into class, they picked up a packet that was designed to guide them through their Socratic seminar. I overheard one student say Frederick Douglass had “thrown a lot of shade in his speech.”

Students took the first five minutes to answer two warm-up questions: “What is the Fourth of July a celebration of?” and “What does the holiday (the Fourth of July) mean to you?” Huber called on a few students to share their answers. For the most part, students talked about it being a time of celebration with their families that typically involves food and fireworks.

Huber then asked her students to take seven minutes to write down two of Douglass’ claims they had identified the night before, as well as their interpretation. After these warm-up exercises, the students were ready to begin the seminar. Huber encouraged everyone to speak at least twice and tracked the discussion in a diagram that she periodically showed them throughout the class. Students were also asked to jot down at least two claims made by their classmates, as well as their peers’ analysis of the claim.

A student began the seminar by directing the rest of the class to lines in Douglass’ speech and reiterated Douglass’ claim that the Fourth of July is a celebration of freedom, but that not everyone in the United States was free. Another student agreed and said that Independence Day was a slap in the face to people who were enslaved. Students continued to take turns citing Douglass as they discussed the hypocrisy of white men celebrating freedom from the oppressive British government, when they in turn built a government that oppresses people of color.  

Huber directed students to the end of his speech when Douglass calls out Christian churches and leaders in their duplicity by not taking action against slavery. Students commented on the influence and power of the church in 1852 and how slavery might have ended sooner had churches not turned a blind eye to the atrocities of slavery. Huber then asked the class how Frederick Douglass was still able to end on a note of hope given the environment at the time. Students pointed to his speech, saying that Douglass believed that the Abolition Movement would prevail and that slavery would eventually come to an end.

The class concluded with students sharing their favorite quotations from the speech and the last few minutes were dedicated to writing a reflection paragraph which they would finish for homework.  

Mykella Palmer