This 2020-2021 academic year marks the third year that my students at Kingswood Oxford in West Hartford have participated in the Witness Stones Project and it’s been the most inspiring and meaningful work of my teaching career. It’s also been the most doubt-inducing, time-consuming work as well. Teaching about race, conducting the slow, laborious historical research, finding ways to engage students with primary documents and help them see the threads from past to present, collaborating with local historians, and guiding students as they create their final projects is no easy task. But right off the bat, I can tell you it’s not only worth it, it’s essential work as social studies and history teachers. Inspiring our students to shift the narrative about the North’s role in profiting from and perpetuating slavery is one desired outcome. Additionally, engaging our students in conversations about race and inviting them to participate in “courageous noticing” and action when it comes to white supremacy and racial injustice is what our country desperately needs.
To sum up what the project entails, this past year all five sections of U.S. History students at Kingswood Oxford partnered with the West Hartford Witness Stones Project, led by retired West Hartford public school teachers Dr. Tracey Wilson, Liz Devine and Denise DeMello. The aim of the Witness Stones Project is to honor the humanity and contributions of the enslaved people who, in part, built this community in West Hartford. Every year, students are assigned one enslaved person to learn intimately about. This year, we had the honor of learning about the West Hartford man Peleg Nott. Nott’s story is a fascinating one. He was enslaved by Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth, and starting in 1775 when Wadsworth was appointed Commissar for the Connecticut militias, Nott drove the provisions cart for the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. In 1780, after his return to civilian life, Nott was elected Black Governor of Hartford. Later, Nott supervised Wadsworth’s 150 acre farm in West Hartford on the southwest corner of Albany Avenue and Prospect Avenue, just to the north of Elizabeth Park. Nott died around 1810 a free man, leaving his wife Rachel and son Henry behind. At KO, for four weeks we delved into the historical context related to slavery in Connecticut, then narrowed in on Peleg Nott’s life, and finally made connections to today regarding the legacy of slavery. With the nudging and inspiration of history teachers Bill Sullivan at Suffield Academy and Rhonan Mokriski at Salisbury, the final project this year was entirely a student led, Project Based Learning experience. This resulted in podcasts, historical marker proposals, letters written to the West Hartford Town Council arguing for a street named after Nott, numerous art pieces, and even a few students who opted to teach our Middle School students (thank you Peter Burdge for facilitating that!)
Below I offer a few suggestions and ideas to consider that might help get a project such as this off the ground. They are in no particular order.
- Start with a guiding question or two that you want your students to answer throughout the unit. While this may seem like a simple step, it really helped us teachers and our students frame the unit. There are so many directions this project can pull you, so it’s important to have a question that isn’t too limiting, yet can also anchor the learning. The question last year was: “what story about slavery needs to be reframed and retold in order to make it part our local and national history and narrative?” This year it was: “What is Peleg Nott’s story? Why should we tell his story?”
- Collaboration is key. For us, connecting with the Witness Stones Directors was an essential step, as they paved the way with research and made documents on databases and in the church, Historical Society and other hidden corners of our town accessible to our students online. Tracey Wilson (who is also my former High School History teacher!) and Liz Devine also joined our classrooms via Zoom two times. Their website, mini lectures, and collaboration with students in Zoom breakout rooms elevated the project to a new level. Additionally, working with the other two KO teachers, Trish Watson and Scott Dunbar, was energizing and helpful in dividing up tasks.
- Educate yourself/self-reflect on how to engage in conversations about race and prepare yourself for those conversations. Teaching about slavery is not like teaching about Industrialization. It’s potentially uncomfortable, yet an essential part to telling the story. Listening to Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries podcasts are a good start. For me, connecting with our Equity Director, Joan Edwards, to help me be aware of my white blinders were invaluable. I am truly so fortunate to have her as a friend and as a mentor.
- Start early. Plan ahead! We started in June for a project that we launched in November. Here is our day to day plan; feel free to use this for guidance.
- A will to move forward even if you have doubts. It’s an urge of mine (and it may be true for many of you) to have a unit neatly tied up and planned through where I have a large degree of control and understanding of where it will end up. Not so here. And that is completely fine. While not all of the final projects will be staggering (for me that was many of our student artwork… err, I need to partner with our art teachers next year for help!) some will awe you (here is a sampling from our students this year.) I was completely moved by two of my students’ proposal to rename a street in town after Peleg Nott. It was published in our town’s newspaper and my hope is they will be able to make their pitch to the Town Council in person soon.
Good luck as you move ahead or rethink this project. Just like history itself, it’s messy and evolving all the time.
-Katie McCarthy, History Teacher at Kingswood Oxford