Teaching Atlantic Slavery in World History with Digital Student Projects

One of my ongoing teaching and research questions concerns situating the Atlantic and Atlantic slavery in world history. To bring these topics to the attention of undergraduates, I have designed and implemented assignments that allow students to directly address comparative questions related to legal personality, indenture, slave trading, and transculturation. For a final assessment in an undergraduate seminar on comparative slavery, students created individual online exhibits to complete a project involving two case studies. The goals were a) to contextualize digital sources in historical ways b) to distill information for an online reader and c) to integrate and discuss two cases of slavery to form a coherent argument. The sites had to contain a minimum of three pages or sections incorporating images, text, and other media.

The basic requirements for the project included comparative analysis with supporting multimedia items; use of appropriate secondary sources from class or other academic texts; complete captions for all media; and a minimum of 2,000 words in the three combined pages. I graded the project on a rubric for its historiographical engagement, original arguments, comparative analyses, item captions, primary source use, and design.

Africans and Chinese Laborers project 1
Partial screenshot of an opening page from a student project on nineteenth-century Cuba.
Africans and Chinese Laborers project 2
Partial screenshot of a student project using of primary sources to discuss labor in Cuba.

Using a range of scholarly works, including Lisa Yun’s The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, James Sweet’s Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World, and Kristin Mann’s Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900, students explored transregional approaches to study slavery. These methods were then intended to help students create accessible projects linking or comparing the experiences of historical subjects in the worlds of Atlantic slavery.

Digital Projects for History Education Teaching Portfolios

Students in my capstone course on “Religion in Iberian Empires” used assigned monographs and published primary sources in translation to create an individual digital project or write a final essay. I offered the digital option specifically for students interested in public history, digital humanities, and secondary education. History Education students expressed an interest in building electronic portfolios with lesson plans and public web sites. These projects would then be useful to them in student teaching and as examples for potential employers. While I did not evaluate the lesson plans for middle and high school students, I graded the websites themselves for content, writing, citations, and design using a rubric. Most students built their projects in Wix, Weebly, or Google Sites. Many of these projects worked well as teaching tools when the students later formally presented them to the rest of the class. I recommend an assignment like this for undergraduates pursuing a career in teaching.

Students covered a range of topics using digital projects intended for their teaching portfolios, but one of the best focused on theater in colonial Mexico. This particular student project (referenced here with permission) draws heavily on Aztecs on Stage: Religious Theater in Colonial Mexico, the recent work of Louise M. Burkhart,‎ Barry D. Sell,‎ and Stafford Poole. In addition to being seamlessly translated and edited, these plays are great entertainment. They work well in an undergraduate course as a primary source to be read and discussed in class. (My students really enjoyed reading aloud the advice of a doctor who instructs others to “take [a sick man] up to the top of the bell tower” and have him “spurt his diarrhea.” This intriguing episode can be found on page 174 of the text.) Other aspects of the plays and editorial guidance from Burkhart, Sell, and Poole allowed students to examine gendered concepts and identities among spectators, writers, and performers (below).

Nahua Theatre student project 1

This example of a student site provides broad cultural and historical contexts for the plays using primary and secondary sources. Connecting the past and the present, the student addresses processes of colonial transculturation and some of its legacies using different media.

Nahua Theatre student project 2

The site also includes some good examples of the student’s teaching toolkit. A scavenger hunt provided helps teachers evaluate student comprehension and interpretation of the basic concepts in the site. The student also offers links to other teaching tools online and in print.

Nahua Theatre student project 3

A Student Project on Colonial Places Using Google My Maps

In an introductory survey of colonial Latin American history, I tried out a mapping project using a simple, free, online program. Objectives included thinking about the persistence and use of colonial spaces in the national period; analyzing changes and continuities to names of historical places, especially with regard to language; and locating sites of historical memory and national meaning. These broad goals seemed suited to Google My Maps, which is straightforward and requires only a little explanation and training. This tool allowed students to insert their analyses as descriptions to marked places, as well as create categories to distinguish time periods. Using information from the textbook and lecture notes to describe the colonial places, students then combined their knowledge with current news sources. Students were required to note the significance of the places they chose and describe relationships between places on their maps.

map of slavery 2
“Colonial Slavery and Conquest.” Student mapping project created with Google My Maps.

Students chose the themes of their maps, many of which explored the legacies of Atlantic trade routes. These examples show one project that reflected on slavery and forced migration (above), and another that took a more general view of the maritime and overland connections between West Africa, the Americas, and Iberia (below).

goods and services map
“Flow of Goods and Services Utilized in Colonial and Modern Latin America.” Student mapping project created with Google My Maps.
minas map
Selection from “Flow of Goods and Services Utilized in Colonial and Modern Latin America” focusing on contemporary Minas Gerais.

This assignment was easy to complete, in terms of the digital skill set needed, while promoting student learning and critical thinking in a key area of colonial Latin American history. The memory of colonial places and their continued use are important take-away points in my teaching. The same aim could be accomplished without using a mapping program, but I also believe that using relatively simple digital tools in an introductory class helps students visualize the impact of colonial places. Furthermore, digital assignments build confidence with technology alongside critical thinking, and possible collaborative projects.

“Los Recuerdos del Barrio” Digital Collection at NAU

On Thursday, my Mexican history class visited Cline Library’s Special Collections to learn about “Los Recuerdos del Barrio en Flagstaff,” an online repository of oral histories from what the exhibit describes as “Flagstaff’s Basque, Spanish, Mexican, and Mexican American families.” Interviews include transcription, translation (where applicable), and video or audio recordings of the discussion. (Much of the text is searchable!) Over the course of more than a decade, Special Collections librarian Delia Ceballos Muñoz has been collecting memories and images that preserve the experiences of Flagstaff residents who lived through historical events such as the Mexican Revolution or the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. The site includes potential lesson plans for secondary education in Arizona, as well as a bibliography of local histories.

During the class period, researcher and librarian Delia Ceballos Muñoz talked to the students about how she conducted this project, its importance, and its scope. After the presentation, students had a chance to ask her questions about the meanings of oral history. Then, I created a group activity in which students laid out a hypothetical interview with a survivor of the Mexican Revolution, taking into account the importance of interviewer and narrator identities. This visit to Special Collections allowed students to learn more about Flagstaff’s communities while considering the practices of oral history. I hope this repository will play a role in final projects for my undergraduate classes.

Benito Mayorga
From Cline’s collection. Gelatin Silver print (black and white). “[L-R, Unknown friend and  Benito Mayorga in Mexico]1920.”
Catalog Description: “BIOGRAPHICAL HISTORY: Lillian Martha Ortiz Mayorga Chavez was born in Flagstaff on April 23, 1943. She and her brother were orphaned as young children and then adopted by Benito and Maria Mayorga. Benito worked at the Saginaw sawmill and Maria worked at home, taking care of the family. Lillian’s upbringing was greatly influenced by her parent’s values, her Mexican heritage and the Catholic faith.”

Monitoring Student Progress with Poll Everywhere

A colleague from the College of Education at NAU recently suggested I try Poll Everywhere to evaluate the main points students are taking away from my lectures and assigned readings. I recommend it to new lecturers or anyone who wants to keep tabs on how well students are absorbing information.

Cover of “Leyes Nuevas” of 1542. 

With five minutes left in a 75-minute introductory survey, I put up a question for text message live polling. Students had the benefits of anonymity and immediate evaluation of their responses. (The question below regards legislation from the mid-sixteenth century.) I’ll be trying out Poll Everywhere with easier and harder questions as the semester progresses. It is certainly helpful to get a range of answers to a question, in this case to see if students are following the reading. The downside is that not all students participated, but I hope more will get used to the exercise as the semester progresses. The goals of using the tool are to keep students on track with the readings and to ensure my own clarity with lecture.

new laws poll

A Successful Lesson with Prism

As a tool for “crowdsourcing interpretation,” as its creators describe it, Prism is visually and functionally interesting for college students. This semester I used Prism to teach two texts in Latin American history, but one stood out as a good length and style for classroom use. Below, I’ve pasted a screen shot of how the class marked up an excerpt from Maria Eugenia Echenique’s essay “The Emancipation of Women” (1876). (This text was published for educational purposes by Harcourt Brace Custom Books and translated by Francisco Manzo Robledo.) I uploaded text and had my class sign up for Prism in small groups. They then read part of the essay and highlighted portions of the texts using three facets. Below, you can see how they understood the theme of legal culture working in this text. The other facets were “Gender Roles” and “Progress.” Three facets seems like a limited number, but I think adding more would not make the exercise as compelling or easy for students to conduct in groups.


My class found the Font Size Visualization feature appealing, though Winning Facet I think would be interesting in a larger class. The Font Size is easier to understand on impact and encouraged students to think about their ideas in relation to those of others. We were able to discuss where we strongly agreed and where some groups had different ideas. The Winning Facet Visualization takes some clicking to understand. Black text indicates places where facets were equally popular. For example, the author argues that Argentine women, “can manage the interests of our children, these rights being the basis for emancipation.” My students believed that managing children’s interests was equally applicable to gender roles and legal culture in nineteenth-century Argentina. Therefore, this portion of text had no winning facet. When we examined this phrase using the Font Size feature, we found that fewer groups had highlighted this section anyway. The combination of the two visualizations is really neat and helps students communicate their ideas with their peers. This exercise allows the class to quickly evaluate multiple opinions–where they overlap and where they diverge.

Like many educators, I have found Prism valuable. Thanks again to all the graduate students, librarians, and faculty at University of Virginia who support the Praxis Program, and the Scholars’ Lab in general. I am a huge fan!