Classroom artifact: “Limits of Liberalism” lesson plan & materials

Lesson Plan
Primary Sources Handout


During my second practicum at OISE, I taught history and law at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, an academically-focused high school with high proportions of racialized, low-income, and Muslim students.  One of the classes I spent the most time with was a grade 12 “West & the World” section, which was studying the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Era during my time there.

One of the core themes of this unit is the emergence of liberalism as a dominant political and social ideology.  I believe that this story is important enough to be told, especially given the central role that competing versions of liberalism play in Canadian politics today.  However, as a postcolonial historian and a progressive educator, I believe that it is equally important  for students to gain an understanding of the ways in which liberal regimes of inclusion and equality have historically been based on counterintuitive exclusions and inequalities.

The slogan of the French Revolution was, famously, “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”  The purpose of my lesson was to have students ask, “for whom?”  To achieve this goal, I designed a lesson that introduced students to two large and economically important groups in France and its possessions – Black slaves and women – and the ways in which they were excluded from the emergent liberal society.

The lesson began with a quick lecture about the colours of the French revolutionary flag, their connection to liberal ideas, and a brief outline of the experiences of Haitian slaves and women during the French revolution and post-revolution: just enough information so that my students would have a skeleton on which to base their learning during the main part of the lesson.  They spent most of the class time in jigsaw format analysing primary documents in groups, guided by a few scaffolded questions that I had prepared for each document.  (The documents I chose included a speech by Toussaint Louverture, a white creole’s description of the Haitian Revolution, the law reinstating slavery in the French possessions, Olympe de Gouge’s Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, and sections of the Code Napoleon concerning gender relations and marriage).  After each “expert group” had reached some conclusions about their primary source, I had the groups intermingle and share their results in an attempt to answer the central question of the lesson: “Did the triumph of liberalism lead to liberty, equality, and fraternity for all?”  (In hindsight, I am less than satisfied with this question, as it has an obvious yes/no answer. Nevertheless, this was an extremely co-operative and mature group of students, and they engaged really well with the issues I presented them despite the limiting nature of how I did it).

Power Triangle Analysis

I designed this lesson as an attempt to implement Kevin Kumashiro’s third stage of anti-oppression education: “education that is critical of privileging and othering.”2  As such, it explicitly targets the intellectual/ideological pinnacle of the power triangle.  It does not address individual or institution actions relating to power and equity, except to the extent that it provides students with new conceptual tools to think about these other pinnacles of the triangle.

I first became interested in the Haitian Revolution – and the way it has been marginalized in mainstream North American histories – during an undergraduate class in Latin American history for which we read Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History3. No other book has ever had such a defining effect on my intellectual development. Trouillot makes several arguments, but the strongest and most memorable is this: the Haitian Revolution has never been accorded its rightful place in the history of the Enlightenment, the Western Hemisphere, or of liberalism itself because its basic premise (that liberalism should not be delineated by race) was unthinkable both to the creoles who created the archives and to the white historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, all of whom were participants in a society based on the central assumption of Black inferiority.

Trouillot’s argument is corroborated by my own high school experience, in which the Haitian Revolution was, quite literally, marginalized to only a sidebar on Toussaint Louverture, which we were not even required to read.  So when I found out that I would be teaching a unit on the French Revolution, my first thought was to make sure that this – the most radical and, arguably, most fundamentally liberal part of the French Revolution – enjoyed a greater prominence in my teaching than it had in my learning.

While I would have emphasized the Haitian Revolution regardless of the composition of my class, it is worth noting that many of my students were Black.  While they tended to be from African, not African-American, backgrounds, they have still come from countries with histories of colonization (an institution that, like slavery, was based on ideas of racial and cultural hierarchy) and have likely experienced systemic racism.  Therefore, by discussing the history of racism – and resistance to it – during the Enlightenment, I was also engaging in one of the tenets of Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy, as defined by James Banks: reshaping the prescribed curriculum to connect it to all students’ identities.4 5

To strengthen the point I was trying to make about the application of liberal ideas being limited by illiberal power relations, I chose to present the experience of Black Haitians in a comparative fashion alongside that of another group that did not enjoy the full promise of liberalism: women.  My pedagogical reasons for selecting this group were identical to those that made me want to teach about Haiti: I believe that students in general should be given opportunities to learn about the history of gender discrimination, and (as should come as no surprise) many of my students also happened to be women.

(I was pleased to see that, when given the choice of which group to study, my students did not simply choose whichever one they most closely identified with, but also weighed other considerations.  And later, for the unit’s culminating activity, one group chose to write a fictional biography of a black woman from Haiti, thus integrating issues of gender and race into a single narrative).

Connection to Equity Continuum

Tenet: Classroom Climate and Instruction

Indicator: “Issues of social justice – anti-racism, anti-classism, anti-sexism, anti-ableism, and anti-homophobia – are central to the classroom curriculum and building students’ critical thinking skills.”

Look-for #1: “Higher order thinking skills and critical thinking are taught and consistently integrated into classroom lessons and activities – demonstrated through the class learning goals and success criteria.”

Look-for #2: “Units and lessons are developed based on “big ideas” that focus on social justice issues.”

Rating: 2.5/4

Rationale: I did a good job of achieving the first look-for I listed above. As for the second look-for, this lesson was excellent, but the overall unit was not as tightly structured around social justice.  In general, what I did less well was extending the learning of this lesson into the environment and overall narrative of the course, something that is covered by several of the other look-fors for this indicator.  For example, if I had posted student work on the topic of limited liberalism on the walls of the classroom, it would have served as a reminder of this social justice theme beyond the one-hour block of time I spent on it.  Additionally, it would have been possible – perhaps even obvious – to structure the entire Enlightenment unit around the idea of social justice (provided, of course, that the students were allowed to develop their own sense of what that means, rather than having a liberal, conservative, or socialist agenda forced on them).  While I certainly could have made more of an effort to work on broad-narrative issues like this during my practicum, the fact that it was a practicum, and by its very nature I was a temporary guest in someone else’s classroom, was definitely a barrier to this.  In the future, when I have my own classroom, I will plan carefully at the beginning of a semester how I want the students to experience their semester with me, and which major ideas I want to be floating around in the classroom even when they are not being directly taught.


[1] Moustapha Boutadjine. “Toussaint Louverture.” From the series Black is Toujours Beautiful., accessed 10 April 2013.

[2] Kumashiro, Kevin.  (2002).  “Theories and Practices of Antioppressive Education.” In Troubling education:  Queer activism and antioppressive pedagogy.  New York, NY:  RoutledgeFalmer.

[3] Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. New York, NY: Beacon Press, 1995.

[4] Morrison, Kristan, Holly Robbins, and Dana Gregory Rose. “Operationalizing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: A Synthesis of ClassroomBased Research.” Equity & Excellence in Education 41:4.  Pages 433-452.

[5] Banks, James. “Approaches to multicultural curriculum reform.” In J. Banks & C. M. Banks (Eds.). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (4th ed., pp. 225–246). New York: Wiley, 2001.