I know I am getting old. My beard is turning grey, my hair is thinning and I have had to start wearing bifocals just to type this blog post. I keep a poster of a Dumbledore quote hanging in my room “‘Youth cannot know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty, if they forget what it was to be young” to remind myself that its easy to forget the passions of youth. Of the biggest cultural shifts I have seen is young people’s desire for body art. Tattoos are everywhere in my high school and students regularly talk about what tattoo they will get when they are either allowed or old enough. I have no tattoos (although I regularly hint at extremely embarrassing tattoos just to keep the kids on their toes) but appreciate that students are into the form. As I talk with teens about their tattoos or what they have planned there seems to be a whole series of cliches and tropes to either avoid, use ironically, or enhance meaning. For example, tribal armband tattoos are “so 90s” and should be avoided at all costs but script sentences with meaningful messages are very popular. My question was how to harness this powerful interest.

Enter – The Tattoo Project

If you have spent any time with social studies curriculum you have certainly had to deal with DBQs, or Document Based Questions. It seems to me that DBQs were developed to assist students in understanding how to develop an evidence based argument without the time consuming (and frankly more engaging) research process. Ask most students about DBQs though and you will get a hardy groan. The sources are fine if somewhat school appropriate and safe and there is no magic of discovery. The problem lies in the final product – the traditional 5×5 essay. I get the argument that students need to learn the rules of writing in particular disciplines. I also understand the notion that one has to know the rules before you can bend them. But I also understand that a disengaged student is one that will do just enough to earn the grade that they are aiming for and will certainly not retain any information beyond the length of the project. For that reason, when teaching with the DBQ materials I like to offer alternative final products that allow for more creativity and sets the stage for more engagement.

In my 2nd US History Unit John Brown is an important figure. He was an abolitionist that led several violent conflicts with pro-slavery folks. He was also widely caricatured following the Civil War as a crazy madman. He is either largely unknown by students or they have some inkling of his caricatured crazy man image seen in this mosaic.

The truth more complex and nuanced (like most good history) and investigating his story is good DBQ fodder. The Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) which has amazing resources for American History has a high quality project about John Brown. For this project I am using the primary and secondary sources that SHEG has collected for their activity and modifying the final suggested product which calls for a piece of writing and discussion. Instead of writing, students are going to read through the sources to identify what the John Brown’s motivation were in his Harper’s Ferry Raid. After reading and analyzing the sources they will create tattoos that they think John Brown would have had based on his world view, motivations, and accomplishments.

The Handout

To make the handout I found a body outline for the base of the picture. I then used paint to “remove” the head from the picture a John Brown. Then used remove.bg on John Brown’s head to make the background transparent. Then it was a simple process in Google Draw to add the head “sticker” onto the body outline. The blank space on the right will be used to explain the tattoos.

The Directions

  1. Students will read the SHEG DBQ documents. While doing so they will use three different color highlighters to identify
    • Motivations
    • Accomplishments
    • General World View
  2. They will then review their notes and check in with their group to check their reading.
  3. Using their notes and their knowledge of John Brown from lecture notes and any additional optional research they will design 3 tattoos and draw them on the blank John Brown body.
  4. In the blank space they will number each tattoo and for each tattoo explain
    • What they drew.
    • What it represents for John Brown.