Engaging Students with History: The Power of Slave Narratives

Middle school students connect with history by writing stories from a slave's perspective.

Middle school students connect with history by writing stories from a slave's perspective.

Editor's Note: Be sure to check out the checklist, worksheets, and rubric for this project at the end of this article.

In an Oakland, California, classroom papered with learning goals and student work, history teacher Lacy Lefkowitz relinquishes her podium to eighth graders presenting their latest project. After a little nudging from peers, a student named Jessica starts reading, quickly, in the voice of a character she created, a woman who was born in Africa, kidnapped by fellow Africans, and sold into slavery in North America. Jessica's classmates, fidgety at first, become silent as she reads (in historical dialect):

"One day Massa complained he needed more money so he sold my husband and kids then he laughed in my face. I got so mad I spit in his face... I's aint neva got so beaten so bad. Massa James put lemon juice in all my cuts. I cried out so loud in pain for John, Abdul, momma, my kids. I cried out for me!"

A Lesson in Empathy

These students at Claremont Middle School have just completed their slave narrative project, a unit that's been taught at the school by eighth-grade history and English teachers for three years. Students write from the point of view of slaves -- those who were born into slavery in the U.S. or brought on slave ships from Africa. By teaching students about slavery through these narratives, the Claremont teachers engage their students in writing by personalizing the study of slavery.

"The slavery unit requires more historical empathy than any other unit, I think," says project creator and history teacher Matt Smith. "So much of the eighth-grade curriculum revolves around debates about slavery and the onset of the Civil War, and I think it's inappropriate to jump into those discussions without first giving a voice to the people who were injured. Their stories are, to me, really the stories of America."

Lefkowitz finds that students understand history more intimately through this assignment: "Just reading doesn't affect them in the same way. They can read about slaves chained on a slave ship, but when it's their character that they're writing about, they gain historical empathy."

Setting Up the Project

Students do the slave narrative project jointly in both history and English class, and teachers scaffold the assignment. In history class, students choose from two dozen topics to brainstorm, such as the Middle Passage (the longest section of the trans-Atlantic trade triangle), field work, beatings, and biracial children. English teachers take on the bulk of the project from there, helping students complete character sketches and make storyboards to outline their narratives.

After writing multiple versions, students add details and descriptions, and edit each others' first drafts before writing a final narrative. They turn their narratives into attractive books with drawings, which they share with each other. Both the history and English teachers grade the project with a rubric.

Asking Tough Questions

Smith finds that students bring many questions on the topic of slavery: Why are people racist? Why did slave owners choose Africans to enslave? Why does slavery exist? How could it go on in the US for so long? Claremont's student population is predominantly African-American, but Lefkowitz recommends that teachers prepare to address race head-on, no matter their student population.

To complement the slave narratives, Claremont history teachers lead a mini-unit on racism featuring excerpts of writings by Howard Zinn and Winthrop Jordan to move conversations "beyond a second-grade understanding of racism," says Smith. Students learn about American slavery in the textbook and by doing dialectical journals with two films, Ships of Slaves and Unchained Memories.

The Lesson's Impact

In English classes, students read slave narratives from the American Antebellum but also more contemporary periods. "That makes a difference," says English teacher Kathryn Williams. "Students realize this is something that could happen to anyone at any time, not just one point in history."

The project certainly makes an impact on students; more turn in slave narratives than any other project during the year, according to Lefkowitz (close to 75 percent of her students this year turned the narratives in on time). It addresses many state standards, and allows for different types of learners to show what they've learned.

Even though the topic made him sad, an eighth grader named Kevin discovered through this project that he was a writer. "I usually have trouble reading and writing. If the teacher tells me to write an essay, usually I write only half a page," he says. But he wrote a four-page slave narrative. He explained, "The project made me want to write."

Fellow student Nia says of doing this assignment, as an African-American, "I took it so, so seriously." Studying and writing about what slaves did to avoid being killed or separated from their families made a big impression. "I learned what it was like to work in the fields, ten hours a day, with no food, even if you were pregnant," she says. "When they were auctioned, their mouths were opened and they were touched like they were not human, like pieces of meat."

Students don't shy away from events as brutal as rape and murder in their narratives. But those are historical realities, and Nia, for one, thinks other teachers should consider doing this project in their classes. "Children should learn what really happened. They should know."

Lisa Morehouse, a former teacher, is now a public-radio journalist and an education consultant in San Francisco.

This article originally published on 3/10/2010

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High school English teacher from Boston, MA

Modern Slavery PSAs

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Thanks for the wonderfully detailed article, Lisa. My sophomore students and I just finished reading Harriet Jacob's INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL, and like your students, they drew profound connections between historical and modern slavery. I was touched by their outrage, and working together, we redesigned the unit to focus on the need for abolitionists today. They created video PSAs and wrote letters. To see their work visit: http://tinyurl.com/BCDSslavery

Thank you!

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Thanks for a wonderful product and process... This can be applied not just to this historical topic, but to others such as immigrants, westward travellers, etc....from a grateful school librarian!

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