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Teaching History Blog

John Brown: Hero or Terrorist

Learning Objectives:
1. Define the qualities of a heroic action and/or person.
2. Discuss modern terrorism and the impact on our lives.
3. Define the terms terrorist/terrorist action.
4. Research the events at Harper’s Ferry and John Brown.
5. Explore newspaper articles from the period and other primary sources about Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry.
6. Debate as a class whether Brown’s actions were heroic or terrorism.
7. Compose a persuasive newspaper report that could have been written in Brown’s life time supporting either the statement that Brown was a hero or a terrorist.

Formative assignment
Outcome: Students will critically analyze primary sources and the actions of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.

Assignment Description: Sometimes the actions of a person are viewed very differently depending on which side of an argument you support. Billy the Kid was a murderer and still considered a hero by many. During the abolitionist struggle to free slaves before the Civil War, John Brown conducted a violent raid on Harper’s Ferry with the idea that slaves he freed would join him in rebellion and inspire slave rebellion across the South. Was he a hero for taking up the slaves’ cause or a terrorist attempting to strike fear in the minds of citizens?

Steps and Instructor Notes:
1. As a class, students will define the qualities of a heroic action and/or person. Students should come prepared with examples and at least two criteria they want to have the class consider. (The instructor’s role is to facilitate the selection of the final criteria.)
2. During the following class period, the students will discuss modern terrorism and the impact on their lives and define the terms terrorist and terrorist action. Again students should come prepared with examples and two criteria and the instructor should facilitate the defining of terrorism.
3. Each student will then research John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.
4. The instructor should provide sources or encourage students to share with the class primary web sources such as newspaper articles from the period and other primary sources about Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry. For example, what did Frederick Douglas say about the event?
5. Debate as a class whether Brown’s actions were heroic or terrorism. Students could be divided by the instructor to argue one side or the other, or the instructor might require students to come prepared with a one minute or brief argument.
6. After participating in the class debate, each student will compose a persuasive newspaper report that could have been written in Brown’s life time supporting either the statement that Brown was a hero for the abolitionist cause or a terrorist striking fear in the hearts of innocent citizens. The instructor should review expectations for citation, grammar, format, and length.

Rubric is based on 100 points total but it is likely this assignment would take several days and could be broken down into more graded parts.
10 points-Student came prepared for both criteria based discussions with sources and examples.
10 points-Student actively participated in discussion to develop criteria.
30 points-Student participated in debate and offered brief argument to support view of Brown’s actions.
50 points- Student composed a grammatically sound newspaper article as if it was written at the time of John Brown’s life either describing Brown as a hero or a terrorist. The article should include very specific details of the event as well as arguments supporting his actions or condemning them.


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