Stop Action and Assess Alternatives
Stop Action and Assess Alternatives is a method for teaching students to think of historical events as contingent. They unfold from conscious decisions made by the involved parties who use the information available to them at the time of these events to make those decisions.
History is often presented as if things happened as they were supposed to happen. Yet with most historical events, there might have been any number of possible outcomes. At critical junctures, the people involved in the events made choices and acted in particular ways based on their values, their roles in the event, and myriad other factors. Using the Stop Action and Assess Alternatives technique helps students to discover that there is always more than one option when deciding what to do and more than two sides to every issue. Through a historical event—such as the Cherokee Removal example discussed below—students see that the involved parties were agents in what happened rather than passive observers.
After gaining background information about a particular historical event, which may come from the textbook or other sources, students analyze the historical event through primary source documents dating from the event’s critical junctures. The parties to the event are identified for students: in the example of the Cherokee Removal, these include Cherokee Indians, the State of Georgia, representatives of the U.S. government, and the media. The students are given documents one at a time that explain various incidents leading up to the event’s outcome. For example, students examine newspaper clippings, transcripts of parts of speeches, and an excerpt from the Supreme Court decision regarding the breach of a treaty between the Cherokee and the State of Georgia. After each document is read and discussed, students are asked to consider the options each constituent party had available to them at that moment. This Stop Action and Assess Alternatives pattern continues until all the documents have been read and discussed.
The technique also can be used with such issues as the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Immigration Act of 1924, and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As with the Cherokee Removal, multiple parties were involved in the decision making for these events and there were critical and distinct moments when decisions had to be made. These qualities lend themselves to the use of this technique. Stop Action and Assess Alternatives should not be used for events such as the outbreak of wars or economic transformations where timelines are too long and multivariate to be adequately addressed.
- Research the topic and get a sense of the different players in the event. For the example of Cherokee Removal, sources are listed below. For a brief and general overview, try this site.
- Choose primary source documents, from the varying constituents’ perspectives, to mark critical junctures as the event unfolded. Primary sources, including images, can be found at the Library of Congress’s Primary Documents in American History and at its American Memory site.
Ideally, students would receive three or more parties’ perspectives for each juncture along the way to the event’s culmination. However, this is not always possible. For example, with the Cherokee Removal lesson described below, there are multiple documents for some dates but only one document from one constituency group for others. It is important that students receive only the primary resources from the date under discussion. Students should not receive all sources at once.
- Review the historical context of the event. For the conditions prevalent at the time of the Cherokee Removal, these include prevailing attitudes about non-whites among the white population; population pressures in the East and farmers’ and ranchers’ desires to expand their holdings; pressures on Indians to assimilate into white culture by converting to Christianity, building and attending schools, etc.; the institutionalized “theft” of Indian lands; and treaties formed between the Indian Nations and Great Britain and, after independence, with the American and Georgia State governments. Background reading for students can come from their class textbook or from Bradley University’s Trail of Tears website.
- Explain to students that the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their land in 1838 and that how the situation got to that point is the day’s lesson.
- Group students by constituency groups:
- Members of the US government on all sides of the issue,
- Members of the Cherokee nation on all sides of the issue,
- The State of Georgia, and
- Members of the press.
- Be sure that students understand the nuances of the Cherokee Indians’ positions. For example, while there seems to have been unanimous opposition to the removal in the early years, some of the tribe’s leaders later changed their positions to favor removal but only as a means of ensuring the tribe’s safety.
- Hand students the documents that pertain to the first critical juncture and have them read them aloud, group by group. Once these are read aloud, Stop Action and have students Assess the Alternatives open to the constituent parties. Keep the students historically honest; ensure that the alternatives they come up with for each party would fit with that party’s positions thus far and with what they know about each party’s values and desires.
- Students may come up with positions for the constituent party they are representing that would be historically inconsistent. However, it’s important to remember that, in the case of the Cherokee Removal, not all Cherokee agreed on what action to take at every juncture; minds changed as new information was acquired.
- There is a tendency to view the press as unbiased when in fact it has always been biased. Moreover, the press frequently takes a position and attempts to convince readers of that position.
- Stop Action and Assess Alternatives is not a debate; student discussions should be within, not between, the constituent parties. Once a group has reached agreement on a proposed course of action for a given date, the group reports its decision and the other groups may discuss their reactions to the decision but should not debate the decision between the groups.
To my first students, whose passionate desire to learn about Native Americans led me to learn more.
Ghere, David L. and Jan F. Spreeman. U.S. Indian Policy, 1815-1860: Removal to Reservations: A Unit of Study for Grades 8-12. Los Angeles: The Organization of American Historians and The Regents, University of California, 2000.
Perdue, Theda and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995.