Flavors of Differentiation in Paul Buckley’s “Age of Jackson” Unit

Most of the time talk about differentiation brings to mind open-ended projects and choice.  Giving students multiple avenues to show what they know is key to making room for meaning making.  But what about the ideological differences students bring to classroom spaces?  History, which inevitably involves interpretation that shunts between today, yesterday, and tomorrow,  is arguably the most contested field of study our youth encounter. Is there a way to make space for both forms of responsiveness to the students in front of us?

Enter stage left: Paul Buckley’s Andrew Jackson Project.  Buckley’s assignment sheet begins: “Unit 8: The Age of Jackson is a short unit covering only three lessons from Chapter 10.  There will be no test and no quizzes.  Rather,  you will have three options for how to show your knowledge and understanding of the material.”

Option 1: Hero/Villain Poster– Within the poster option you have choices.  You may create a campaign poster which portrays Jackson as a hero.  Or you may create a wanted poster which portrays him as a villain.  For each of these you will need to include at least four aspects of his life or presidency.  It will also include a written component justifying the topics that you chose to incorporate.  Further, the poster may be either a virtual or a physical poster.  

Option 2: Five Paragraph Essay– Write a 5-paragraph essay in response to this question: “Assess the person and the presidency of Andrew Jackson.  To what degree should we celebrate him and to what degree should we apologize for him?”

Option 3: Research Essay– This is the most challenging option and should be attempted only if you are really motivated by the topic.  Write a research essay in which you address the question “To what degree are there parallels to be drawn between the persons and presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump” You will address their personal characteristics, their policies, and approaches to the presidency. 

P.S. Lest you are thinking what I am thinking (everyone is going to do the poster because it’s super easy and fluffy), there was some writing required either way.  (See the back of the posters for proof below.)

Such assignment prompts are not for the faint of heart.  But anyone who knows Paul knows he cares deeply about supporting students to express their ideas clearly, listen deeply to ideas that differ from their own, and be willing to engage in dialogue across difference.  Paul explains further:

The overarching aim is to have kids recognize the complexity of people and historical  events.  Humans are so complex, aren’t we?!  We can hardly even say that we understand ourselves, much less others.  This recognition hopefully leads to us judging others, past and present, a little less harshly and with a little more humility.  I guess this is one way to help depolarize, eh.  Another aim of the project is to help us to recognize when we are using our presentism lens (judging the past by the moral standards of today) and our historicism lens (judging the past by the standards of their time and place)

From my vantage point, Paul is engaging in two flavors of differentiation in this particular project: (1) giving students choice in the product they create to show their understanding of the unit and (2) creating a clear avenue for agency in historical-ideological interpretation.

My two cents? Generally there are very few clear heroes and villains. We all have a good bit of both all wrapped up hiding under our very human skin.  And I think the authors of the posters below get that too.

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