Dred Scott Classroom Activities

Studying Supreme Court decisions helps students see how laws change.
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The Dred Scott decision of 1857 outraged people in the Northern states, and the Civil War followed just a few years later. Born into slavery, Scott made history through his legal battle to gain freedom. At one point the Missouri courts granted Scott his freedom, but the decision was overturned later by the United States Supreme Court when it was declared that slaves were not citizens and therefore did not have the right to sue in federal court. This landmark case often is taught in school, and it is important to use creative and thought-provoking lessons to help students understand the significance of this piece of U.S. history.

1 Journal Writing

To help students better understand the life of Dred Scott, have them keep a journal written from his point of view. Students should pretend to be Scott and write about his thoughts and feelings as a slave and during his fight for freedom. To ensure students understand the material, ask for specific facts to be included in the journal articles. This might include information about Scott's life as a slave for his first master Peter Blow, his marriage to fellow slave Harriet Robinson, his first attempt to buy his freedom or the later court case. At the end of the unit, students can select the journal entries they think best portray Scott, and the entries can be compiled into a book to be used for future reference.

2 Re-enactment

Dred Scott battled in the courts for 10 years, starting in Missouri and ending up before the United States Supreme Court. Have students work in groups to re-enact these court cases, writing short scripts based on their research. Have the groups act out the cases for the rest of the class. One group can present the 1847 case when Scott lost due to lack of evidence, another group can present the 1850 case when Scott and his family were granted their freedom, and a third group can present the Dred Scott Decision of 1857.

3 PowerPoint Presentation

Students today are experts at using technology and can use it to show what they know as well. Have students create a PowerPoint presentation about Dred Scott and his life. This should include slides about his various masters, his marriage, the slave states and free states where Scott lived throughout his life and of course the court cases that made him famous. Encourage students to be creative, using pictures, special fonts and graphics throughout the power point. When the assignments are completed, PowerPoints can be shared in class.

4 Final Opinions

After the Supreme Court ruling, Scott and his wife were purchased by the sons of his first master, Peter Blow. Blow's sons had befriended Scott and wanted him to be free, so they granted Scott and his wife freedom in 1857. Dred Scott passed away just nine months later. After presenting this final piece of information to the students, create a timeline of Scott's life and display it in the classroom. Then ask students to think about ways Scott's life might have changed if he had not died so soon after gaining his freedom. In pairs, have students brainstorm ideas they would like to have seen added to the timeline after Scott's death and then work together to write a short essay mapping out those possibilities. Display the essays on a classroom bulletin board underneath the actual timeline, allowing students to compare and contrast the ideas of their classmates.

Billie Wager has been a public school teacher since 1998. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in elementary education and Master of Arts in curriculum and instruction, both from Ottawa University. Wager is licensed to teach kindergarten through ninth grade in Kansas.