Magazine Feature

Toolkit for “Be Your Own Historian”

Teach and learn about the Reconstruction era with resources—including videos, texts, lessons and a unit plan—from Facing History and Ourselves.

Historians have debated how to talk and teach about the Reconstruction era since the era itself. In “Be Your Own Historian,” Dr. Timothy McCarthy explains why it’s crucial that educators get this right. This toolkit, developed with our friends at Facing History and Ourselves, can help you learn, teach and reflect upon this important period in American history.

The resources provided in this toolkit support the teaching of Reconstruction in several different ways, including:

  • supporting teacher reflection on current practice
  • framing existing curriculum on Reconstruction
  • supplementing existing curriculum on Reconstruction
  • offering a mini-unit on Reconstruction 


Essential Questions

  1. Are laws the most important factor in overcoming discrimination? Why or why not?
  2. Historian Eric Foner calls Reconstruction “America’s unfinished revolution.” What debates and dilemmas from the Reconstruction era remain unresolved?
  3. Why is it important to “be your own historian”?

Essential questions republished with generous permission from Facing History and Ourselves. 


Reflecting on Current Practice

When you teach Reconstruction, are you including the nuance your students need to deeply understand this pivotal period in U.S. history? 

  • Try conducting a curriculum audit. Ask yourself:
  • How much time do I spend teaching Reconstruction?
  • What primary and secondary resources do my students explore?
  • What themes do I cover?
  • How do I connect Reconstruction to the present day?
  • What are my goals when I teach Reconstruction?
  • How does my current approach support these goals?

If you’ve identified some gaps you’d like to address, start by checking out these resources from Facing History and Ourselves.

  • The Reconstruction Era Video Series, seven short videos that provide students with an introduction to the key events, ideas and historical actors of the Reconstruction era.
  • Documents, a collection of primary and secondary sources including letters, diary entries, engravings, lists and more that allow students to further explore and unpack 19th-century understandings of, and reactions to, Reconstruction.
  • Writing Strategies, a downloadable guide for educators including writing strategies, points of focus, Common Core alignments and lists of procedures to support students as they write about Reconstruction.

Read on to find suggestions for incorporating these resources in your existing teaching or using them to build a new curriculum. 


Framing Existing Curriculum

If you’ve already designed a curriculum for Reconstruction, you can incorporate these resources by adding a frame to what you’ve already planned. We particularly recommend two lessons: “A Contested History” (at the beginning of the unit) and “The Legacies of Reconstruction” (added at the end) to contextualize your students’ study. 

These lessons include short (15-minute) videos, questions to aid student comprehension and to prompt discussion, recommendations for teaching strategies, and suggestions for—and links to—primary and secondary documents for students to explore. For educators who have less time to devote, the videos and accompanying questions make a compelling mini-lesson.

The first, “A Contested History,” can be used at the beginning of a unit. It asks students to consider the significance of historiography, presenting historical interpretations of Reconstruction even as it introduces students to the era itself.

The second, “The Legacies of Reconstruction,” encourages students to consider the significance of what they’ve learned at the end of a unit on Reconstruction. This lesson traces the effects of Reconstruction through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s and into the present day.

Used together to frame students’ study of the Reconstruction era, these lessons ask students to consider the significance not only of the events and ideas they study, but also the ways we continue (or fail) to discuss them—and why that discussion matters today.


Supplementing Existing Curriculum

If you’d like to supplement your existing curriculum, consider incorporating short videos from The Reconstruction Era Video Series, produced by Facing History and Ourselves.     

For additional support, including questions to aid student comprehension, see their Video Lessons.

Available videos include:

Develop and Teach a Mini-Unit on Reconstruction

For those educators working to create a mini-unit on Reconstruction, Facing History and Ourselves’ seven video lessons can be taught sequentially. Together, they provide students with a useful introduction to the key events, ideas and legacies of the Reconstruction era. 

Each lesson includes questions to aid student comprehension and prompt discussion, recommendations for teaching strategies, and suggestions for—and links to—primary and secondary documents for students to explore. 


Teach The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy

The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy is a comprehensive unit for the teaching of Reconstruction.

Divided into 16 lessons, the unit offers approximately 300 pages of resources such as writing prompts, connection texts, recommended teaching strategies and close reading exercises. It is available for download to educators who create a free login with Facing History and Ourselves.


Related Resources (from TT)

  • In “Be Your Own Historian,” Dr. Timothy McCarthy explains why it’s crucial that educators get this era right when they teach it to students.
  • The article “We Need the Lessons of Reconstruction” explains the necessity of teaching this pivotal era in American history. 
  • The 14th Amendment states that all people born or naturalized in the United States are citizens. TT’s text includes an audio file of the Amendment and text-dependent questions. 
  • The Rebirth of Caste,” an excerpt from Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, offers a more detailed introduction to the relationship between Reconstruction, Jim Crow policies and the civil rights movement.


Related Resources (from Facing History and Ourselves)

  • An experienced high school teacher reflects on the ways that the resources from Facing History and Ourselves made him rethink how he’d taught the era in “What I Got Wrong When I Taught Reconstruction.”
  • In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America, the first history of that era written by an African American. This excerpt, from the chapter “The Propaganda of History,” explores the ways that children were taught about Reconstruction in the early 20th century.
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