Students, faculty develop new study guide for Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Helping young students understand language, learn historical detail, grasp big issues

August 13, 2012

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 may be world-famous, but younger students often don't fully grasp the issues, language or historical context, according to a student-faculty team at Knox College that is producing a study guide to the debates.

Knox students Alejandro Varela and Jamal Nelson and educational studies faculty Jason Helfer and Stephen Schroth are creating the study guide for the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College. Designed for grades 6 through 12, the guide is aimed at promoting better understanding of the 1858 debates and the debaters, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Photo Gallery: Alejandro Varela and Jamal Nelson confer about the project

Funded in part by a grant from the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, the study guide will be promoted and distributed to educators this fall. It will be available for download on the Lincoln Studies Center website.

The release will coincide with the anniversaries of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates that were held in the late summer and fall of 1858, as well as this fall's presidential debates, scheduled for October.

Special publicity will focus on schools in and near the seven communities where the Lincoln-Douglas Debates were held: Ottawa on August 21, Freeport on August 27, Jonesboro on September 15, Charleston on September 18, Galesburg on October 7, Quincy on October 13, and Alton on October 15.

Rodney Davis, Douglas WilsonStudy Guide Aims to Enhance Education
The project was initiated by noted Lincoln scholars Rodney Davis and Douglas Wilson of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College -- where Old Main is the only original building that remains from the debates that occurred in seven cities around Illinois.

"Rod and Doug asked us to help develop lesson plans and teaching aids that would make the debates and their historical background more accessible to grade school and high school students," Schroth said. Schroth and Helfer have also produced historically-based study guides and enrichment materials for Lyric Opera of Chicago, American Boychoir and the National Railroad Hall of Fame.

Students and Faculty Scholars Work Together
Schroth and Helfer enlisted two of their students to develop the project -- Varela, a senior from Phoenix, Arizona; and Nelson, a junior from Chicago.

The students worked with two widely acclaimed books written by Davis and Wilson -- "The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The Lincoln Studies Center Edition," which is the first scholarly edition of the debate texts; and "Herndon's Informants," one of the most important modern reference works on Lincoln.

Alejandro Varela, Jamal Nelson"Alejandro has worked with the debate texts, while Jamal is in charge of background," Schroth said. "The students have been working through the debates and their context, finding ways to emphasize the conceptual themes, helping teachers dig into the history in ways that are interesting to their students."

Activities Combine History and Current Interests
Putting the debates into historical context is a challenge, Schroth said. "We want to help young students understand that these debates are different from what they expect. They may not realize that there's a historical tradition that understood slavery very differently from the way that we do."

To make the debates more interesting, the Knox College team came up with an activity plan -- to have the young students create a newspaper about the debates.

"We felt that making a newspaper would be a way to get and hold the interest of kids," Nelson said. "They have to break down the language to get to the ideas and figure out what each speaker meant."

"Newspapers are objects that are familiar to students, that we can use to communicate the words of the debates, and the major concepts such as law, slavery, and liberty," Schroth said. "To deal with these ideas will be very rewarding."

Jason Helfer, Stephen SchrothUnique Undergraduate Research Opportunity
Helfer said that student-faculty collaboration has been one of their key objectives. "Stephen and I had a conversation with Doug and Rod to get their thoughts on collaboration. One of the joys has been to work with Jamal and Alejandro, and modeling the importance of collaboration on the many layers of this work."

Varela and Nelson began working on the project last spring. "It's been magical," Schroth said. "We have Alejandro and Jamal as undergraduates doing work that students at other colleges might not get an opportunity to do until graduate school."

The project received a grant of $11,000 from the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation, dedicated to perpetuating and expanding Lincoln's vision for America.