Student Self Reflection as a Tool for Historians of the Future

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As a historian, I’m thinking a lot lately about when the “era of 2020” will begin and end within the US survey. In addition to the presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic (social, political, and economic factors) will be center stage for any discussion of the historical events of 2020. In US history classes there will undoubtedly be coverage of the efforts of Black Lives Matter and other civil rights organizations to draw attention to systemic racism after a series of high-profile murders of African Americans during the year.


With this week’s conviction of Derek Chauvin in the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, I’m cautiously hopeful that historians of the future will be able to offer students 2021 as a pivot in the American narrative. Perhaps at some point in the future, this week’s verdict in Minnesota will be a marker. Those of us who teach US history have no shortage of examples of times in our national past when the government or the courts have been on the wrong side of history. On April 20, 2021, however, we as a nation watched as a jury of our peers unanimously voted to convict a man of brutal crimes, and for many of our students there is hope in that jury’s decision.


Future historians will be looking at the period in which we currently live for evidence of how the nation responded to the verdict. This moment offers us a unique opportunity to reflect upon the events of the last thirteen months while encouraging students to be part of the historical record. Ask your students to write a letter or journal entry responding to the Chauvin conviction. Guide their writing with some historically relevant questions:


  • Identify yourself; categories such as age, gender, race, and level of education will be helpful to historians reading your writing in years to come.
  • When do you recall first learning about the death of George Floyd?
  • What media sources did you rely upon for information? Did you feel confident that you could trust these sources? Why/why not?
  • Did you attend any events related to social justice issues during 2020? If so, where/when?
  • Did you follow the public debate about police reform? Did you see any specific changes take place in your community related to the subject?
  • Did your friends/family discuss/follow the case? How would you characterize the conversations about race and policing that took place around you?
  • How did you/your community respond to the verdict? 
  • Finally, ask your students to think about bias. Did the knowledge that future generations might read their reflections of the Chauvin conviction influence what they wrote? How?


Assigning this responsive writing as an extra-credit or low-stakes assignment provides students the opportunity to be reflective while also documenting perspectives in this historic time. Brainstorm with the students how best to preserve their writings. As someone who loves archival research, I would be partial to donating paper copies of the students’ work to archive at my college. Students who feel less inclined to share their views, however, might embrace the idea of sealing their essay in an envelope and stashing it away somewhere for safe keeping. Even those who chose not to share their work as part of an archive donation will no doubt be interested in revisiting their 2021-perspective later in life.


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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.