Who would think helicopters flying over your house would lead to an inquiry about slavery, the cotton industry and the Panic of 1837? Then again, it is 2020. I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania near the iconic Philadelphia Museum of Art. The “Art Museum” is a gathering place for celebrations, running up the “Rocky” steps and protests. Helicopters hovering in my neighborhood in the summer of 2020 signaled the latter. I was moved to tears as I joined the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and their message of systemic racism in our country as a response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many more people of color. As a white female educator, marching and being emotionally invested was not enough, I started to examine my role as an economics instructor and how I could be part of the solution instead of just acknowledging the problem. I needed to turn thought into action through meaningful curriculum development. So, I turned to the C3 Framework to create an IDM.

As a community college economics instructor, I engage students in authentic examination of primary sources to connect people and their decisions with economic outcomes.  Primary source analysis provides equity in instruction and opens access to economic thinking. Students observe, ask questions and connect those observations to economic shocks which contribute to economic downturns (recessions) or periods of exuberance (expansions) that make up the business cycle. Students have the opportunity to take agency over their learning and immerse themselves in deep inquiry. 

Weaving together Guided Inquiry and Student Directed Inquiry, I created an IDM using the C3 Framework to address the compelling question, “How Did Cotton Sow the Seeds of Panic?”. 

Developing the Inquiry

The events surrounding the BLM movement in the summer of 2020 led me to deep reflection on how our country’s economic system contributed to systemic racism and marginalization of people of color and how it was connected to our economy.  I brainstormed ideas about how inquiry promotes the discovery of connections between slavery and the economy. After listening to the 1619 Project’s podcast and was stung by the increased brutality of enslaved people in the name of labor productivity during the rise of the cotton industry in the 1800s. As a former social studies teacher and economist, I was embarrassed that I did not know the details of this economic history and its ties to a legacy of economic racism in our country.  To rectify my deficit, I strived support students making connections between the treatment of African Americans in the 1800s and the Black Lives Matter movement and turning those connections into taking action.

Supporting Questions

    1. What market forces impacted the demand for cotton in the 1800s?
    2. What market forces impacted the supply of cotton in the 1800s?
    3. How did the growth of the cotton industry, trade & speculation contribute to the brutality of slavery on plantations?
    4. What additional economic and political factors contributed to the Panic of 1837?

Key Components of the Inquiry

The BLM Protests and 1619 Project called me to action, and I wanted the same for my students. I planned an inquiry to make this happen. To begin this inquiry, students first listen to a sample from the 1619 Project podcast. Small group work followed as students complete the formative performance tasks using  “Close Looking” and the Library of Congress primary source analysis tool to guide primary source analysis. The formative performance tasks of this inquiry build upon each other.  Students begin the inquiry identifying cotton industry demand and supply market forces in a variety of newspaper columns from Chronicling America. They organize their findings in a T- Chart and graph the cotton market. In the next task, students create a timeline illustrating key events related to the cotton industry, slave trade, land speculation and international trade from 1830-1840. The last  task has students add economic and political factors contributing to the Panic of 1837 to the timeline.

In the summative performance task, students write an essay, detailed outline, poster or create a video that evaluates the question, “How Did Cotton Sow the Seeds of Panic?’  As an extension to this inquiry, students compare and contrast elements of the Great Recession with the Panic of 1837. 

Reflection Through Taking Informed Action

As I have started to implement parts of this inquiry in a virtual teaching format, I am finding that students are uncomfortable discussing human beings as resource inputs that are not paid labor but used as natural resource like oil or capital like an assembly line. This is very heavy for them to understand, but vitally important to the inquiry. When students see that much of the debt in the cotton industry was forgiven because the collateral was enslaved people, many are gut wrenched and described feeling disgusted. Indeed, the use of human beings as an incentive to increase productivity when cotton prices increased is barbaric. 

The year 2020 is stressful for most of us for one reason or another. Having to face our own implicit biases is difficult at any time, much like myself, white people feel paralyzed and wonder what we can do to be part of the solution. This is where the taking informed action activity of the IDM is invaluable. As a much needed debrief students identified a current issue where a group is exploited for the gain of others. They brainstormed and created an action list to create awareness of the issue. After ranking issues, they decided on the course of action. The students wanted to focus on Black Lives Matter and voter suppression. The course of action included getting one friend to register to vote, to safely participate in peaceful marches, and to volunteer for their candidate of choice through phone banks, text banks and poll workers. I understand the paralysis that comes from so much injustice. My students felt it too. Creating an environment where students can create actionable items was more valuable than I anticipated when I began creating this inquiry. One thing is for sure, we all felt we were left with many more questions than answers and that is uncomfortable. It is our job as teachers to support students as they sit with these uncomfortable truths and help them engage in meaningful evidence-based action.

The complete IDM for grade Level 9-14, Economics of Slavery, the Cotton Industry, and the Panic of 1837, “How Did Cotton Sow the Seeds of Panic?” is found below.