Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Beyonce and Lincoln: Public and Private

There was a small internet kerfuffle recently when photos of superstar Beyonce -- without makeup -- were leaked online.

Beyonce, of course, has tons of public pictures of herself available to the average Googler. She’s a pretty big star and has been for almost twenty years!

But there’s a difference between a picture Beyonce meant to share and one she didn’t. There’s a big difference between public and private.

The internet is full of the problems like that from politicians to starlets to regular Joes. Because, really, we write and create things for two different purposes -- for public (published) use or for private use.

When we look at history, documents tend to fall into the same two categories -- public (published) and private. Meaning, stuff that’s meant to be read and stuff that’s not. Often, there’s a difference between the two.

Abraham Lincoln is a person who sometimes wrote one thing in his personal writings and said something very different in his public writings and speeches.

For example, what did Abraham Lincoln REALLY think about slavery?

His private letters say:
"Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, "Letter to Alexander H. Stephens" (December 22, 1860), p. 160.

But another private letter says;
"I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume VII, "Letter to Albert G. Hodges" (April 4, 1864), p. 281.

But the Emancipation Proclamation says
“all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free;” Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863

What beliefs were personal and which were political? What did he really believe? Did his beliefs evolve? Or was there a big difference between public and private beliefs?

It’s complicated.

And, it’s hard to tell without a lot of context surrounding the documents.

And, it’s possible to be anti-slavery without being an abolitionist. Politics are complicated. People are complicated.   

When we read historical accounts, we find documents that were meant to be read by others -- newspapers, speeches, legislation. We also find documents that were NOT necessarily meant to be written by many others -- shopping lists, receipts, diaries, personal letters.

We do this personally, in our own modern lives, too. Sometimes we post things publicly on social media or in emails where we expect others to read them. And then sometimes, we write things just for ourselves -- like lists, receipts, notes.

So while the idea of writing for public OR private readers is not new, it’s time to transfer that idea to our classrooms.

We have two basic types of writing in class:
·         We can have our kids write for public -- that is, for publication, for others to read, for a 

red pen and a big grade. We can have them do final writing assignments where we expect fully-formed thoughts, correct grammar, and real punctuation, like essays, articles, posters, blog posts, final projects.


·         We can have our kids write for private -- for learning, for themselves to read and think through. “Thinking is clarified by writing” says the DBQ Project’s Core Beliefs. We give kids “writing for learning” tasks -- lists, brainstorms, quick writes, document analysis sheets, exit tickets, etc. -- writing where kids are thinking-on-paper and figuring things out. Writing where kids don’t necessarily have to have all the right  answers or use full sentences. (This is the kind of writing I LOVED as a teacher because I didn’t have to grade it too closely.)

It’s okay to do both. Really, it’s important to do both.

“Writing for publication” is often used as a type of summative assessment -- to see how much the students have learned.

“Writing for learning” is usually used as a type of formative assessment -- like a check-in to monitor student learning and see where our students are with content and skills and how we need to adapt or adjust our teaching.

For ideas of “Writing to Learn” assignments, check out this handy list from Colorado State University

Take a look at your assignments. Are they “writing for publication” or “writing for learning”? Are you getting to both in your class?  What does each type of writing tell us about Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery? What does each type of writing tell us about what our students are learning? As always, I love to hear! Email me


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