I saw the remarkable film “Amazing Grace” when it was released in US theaters this past April, but for some reason I did not blog about it or the issues it raises before. That is an oversight I am pleased to remedy this evening.

I adore NetFlix. Our use of NetFlix waxes and wanes, but before the holidays we updated our movie queue to include the 1997 movie Amistad, the 2006 movie Amazing Grace, and a 1998 documentary “The Voyage of La Amistad: A Quest for Freedom.” As I recall we took our then nine year old son to see “Amazing Grace” at the theater, but had never shown him the movie “Amistad” previously. My wife and I saw “Amistad” at the theater shortly after he was born in 1997, and I remember she was so upset by the scenes of the mother and child on the middle passage that she had to leave the theater for awhile. Shelly read Zach Hunter’s book “Be The Change” about working to end contemporary slavery sometime last spring, and has encouraged me to read it. (I haven’t yet.) To date, I think my only blog reference to Zach and that book was my August 2nd post, “Maintaining perspective and changing the world.” The full title to his book is “Be the Change: Your Guide to Freeing Slaves and Changing the World.”

This evening, we watched the movie “Amazing Grace” again along with some of the special features on the DVD from Netflix. If you have not seen this movie, you need to. I’d definitely put it on a “must see” list for anyone, whether or not you are a teacher. This goes on a “human beings must watch” movie list. I had known that England outlawed the slave trade before the United States prior to watching this movie for the first time, but I had never heard of William Wilberforce or heard the story of his campaign to end the global slave trade. When I heard Randy Testa, Vice President of Education for Walden Media, speak at our state library conference in Oklahoma at the end of August (an outstanding presentation he unfortunately would not let me record and share) I was interested to learn some U.S. state legislators have responded so strongly to this movie they have suggested it become required viewing for all high school students. I share strong enthusiasm for this film as well as the issues it raises, but am NOT an advocate for increasing the number of curricular mandates in ANY state of our nation. Despite my opposition to that specific proposal, I think the fact some have proposed making this film mandatory for high school graduation says a great deal about how important these issues are, and what an excellent job this film does in presenting them.

Few things are more abhorrent than human slavery. It is extremely important that as learners of the present and students of the past, we acknowledge and understand that in the course of human history, slavery was legal “only yesterday” and remains a reality for millions of people even today.

As we anticipate the start of a new year in 2008, it is worthwhile to consider what issues and causes are worth sharing with our students and encouraging them to take an active role in. The abolition of slavery should figure high on all our lists. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Ohio is one resource among MANY referenced in the special features of the “Amazing Grace” DVD. The campaign “The Amazing Change” focuses on the realities of modern-day slavery, and tangible steps which people of any age can take to stop slavery as modern day abolitionists. Do your students think abolitionists were just historical figures, like Harriet Tubman? If so, they need an update on current events. Introduce them to David Batstone’s book “Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade–and How We Can Fight It” along with Zach Hunter’s book “Be the Change: Your Guide to Freeing Slaves and Changing the World.” Those books are for sale, but there are MANY resources you can plug into yourself and invite your students to read that are FREE.

High on this list is the WikiPedia article for William Wilberforce, along with the BBC’s history link for Wilberforce. On the BBC website, pay particular attention to the wonderful links on the right sidebar. The WikiPedia articles for Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano should also not be missed. According to the article for Olaudah:

Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), also known as Gustavus Vassa, was one of the most prominent people of African heritage involved in the British debate for the abolition of the slave trade. He wrote an autobiography that depicted the horrors of slavery and helped influence British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade through the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Despite his enslavement as a young man, he worked as a seaman, merchant, slaver and explorer in South America, the Caribbean, the arctic, the American colonies, and the United Kingdom.

Olaudah Equiano

Brycchan Carey’s website of links and resources related to Olaudah Equiano is superb as well. As soon as I saw the theatrical portrayal of Olaudah signing copies of his autobiography in the movie “Amazing Grace,” this evening, I immediately thought of Project Gutenburg, which shares free, digitized copies of books which have passed into the public domain. Surely Olaudah’s autobiography, which was published in 1789, would be among those works now freely available?

How delighted I was to find his book, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa,” available as a free electronic download from Project Gutenberg! I now have zero excuses for not reading his firsthand account of the transatlantic slave trade. There is no better way to learn history than from first person accounts, and here is a first-person account of slavery from a former slave, in his own words. In past centuries, people would have had to find and purchase Olaudah’s book to read and understand his story. Now, by simply clicking a few links, his entire narrative is before my eyes and waiting to enter into my thoughts.

We live in remarkable times. Our times are remarkable in large part because of the courage, fortitude, and perseverance of visionaries and leaders like William Wilberforce. Their work, however, and ours, is far from finished. Do you aspire to make the world a better place? If you are an educator of any type, the ideals of our profession embody this goal. Do your students aspire to make the world a better place? What do they care about, what do they want to understand better, and what do they want to work to change TODAY even as they are yet in the flower of their youth?

I was extremely impressed this past summer at NECC, listening to Dr. Tim Tyson discuss the changes in student video topics at Mabry Middle School over the past seven years. Tim shared that student films changed from those which simply shared facts and ideas, to those which focused on real-world problems and encouraged members of the audience to TAKE ACTION and make a difference. That trend line should be a reality in the digital storytelling contests and film festivals hosted in every one of our school districts.

If you have aspiring digital storytellers in your classroom, let them know about “The Better Hour Contest.” The deadline for entry is March 1, 2008, so they will have to get busy once school begins again in January. The available prizes are substantial, but the overarching purpose is even more impressive and important.

The Better Hour Video Contest

What was done at your school this past year to commemorate the 1807 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in England? Do students, teachers, and others realize slavery is still a CURRENT event, and there are things they can be doing to take action and stop it?

If not you, then who? If not now, then when? Become a modern day abolitionist, and encourage your students to join you. We aren’t practicing and sharing these digital literacy skills merely to amuse and inform ourselves. We’re sharing these skills to transform the world into a better place.

Let’s get to work.

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  • http://dlaufenberg.pbwiki.com Diana Laufenberg

    I have used both Amistad and Olaudah Equiano to teach about historical slavery for years. I also teach about the modern realities of slavery as well. The story of Craig Kielburger and Iqbal Masih, which deals specifically with child labor, is one worth investigating as well. http://www.freethechildren.com/index.php Telling the stories of adults is what history typically does, but I strive to tell history from the eyes of a 12, 13, 14 year old to make it more real to the students. Olaudah, Iqbal and Craig make very powerful stories to tell about what the life experience of a kid in history. I am trying to get my school to read a book together at the beginning of the next school year to have a common goal/shared expereince for the year… will be reading Be the Change to see if it is a candidate. I am about to switch gears from first semester grography to second semester history… so this blog post kick started me thinking about all the things I will be working on.

  • http://ideasandthoughts.org Dean Shareski

    I love following the path to learning of these types of experiences; how watching a movie, leads to a book to a website to conversations and so on. I think what this illustrates to me is that content is as important as engagement. As I read a post yesterday about the lack of quality in student blogs as well as your mention of Mabry’s video evolution, it reinforces the importance of knowledge and content. Finding stories and histories that spark interest and stir emotion is really the critical parts of learning. While as advocates of digital storytelling, we applaud the use of the easy tools, it’s easy to see that often depth and meaning are set aside for glitz and easy production.

    Anyone who walked with you through your learning would definitely had a great experience and understanding whether or not it lead to a new production.

    BTW, my wife read the book, I have it on Audible and plan to watch the movie this week.

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