Sunday, March 30, 2008

Teaching a Unit on Slavery in Intermediate or Middle School (Part 1: Picture Books)

If you want to teach a unit on slavery, my first and only no-no is a textbook, stay away from the stupid things. The conventional social studies textbook will give you a few token pages about the history of slavery, might even show a pair of shackles, talk about Nat Turner and Frederick Douglas, then mention how not all slaves were treated very bad. Well, that's not what students need to know, so stay away from that.

Like when planning any unit, you want to have the end results in mind. What do you want to teach your students with this unit? If you want them to work on reading skills and get through the next chapter in the book, then by all means, use the social studies textbook. If you want them to learn about the horrors of slavery, why it happened, how it stopped, and the reality of slave life, then forget the textbook, it's only a resource at this point.

I like to start each unit in social studies with a video that shows a lot of pictures, facts, and video clips of the unit. What I tell my students is that the things they see on the video are things that they will know all about by the time we're done, then I show it. I show the video again as the last thing we do in that unit. So unless you're skilled at pre-planning and with some form of video making software, either Microsoft Movie Maker or ProShow or something like that, I wouldn't go this route.

The hard part about teaching slavery is, if you teach social studies in a chronological manner the way I do, you can't do the unit in one shot. You'll probably want to start out talking about the slave ships and routes that began back in the 1500's when talking about the rest of the 1500's and even into the late 1400's. It brings an edge of controversy to the discussions about the travels to the West Indies and places like that.

As you get to the main part of the unit, you'll be talking about slaves in the United States, probably mainly during the 1700's and 1800's. I have a picture book that I read to my 5th grade students called From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, by Julius Lester and Rod Brown, which is an honest look at slavery, its brutality, and the Underground Railroad.

Some other great PICTURE BOOKS ABOUT SLAVERY include:

  • Under the Quilt of Nightby Deborah Hopkinson: This book is actually appropriate for any grade level, but was received well by my 10-12 year old students. It's the story of a young runaway slave girl and her family on the Underground Railroad. You hear the horrors of slavery and the dangers runaways faced through the eyes of a child. The pictures are beautiful as well, this is a great book.
  • To Be A Slaveby Julius Lester: This book takes you inside what it feels like to be a slave. It's a picture book more appropriate for kids ages 9 and up, but very very telling with strong images.
  • Almost to Freedom (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book), by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: This book could be appropriate for even primary grades, but it's a good one to include. It's the story of a young girl on the Underground Railroad and her rag doll. The story is told by the rag doll, and is an excellent tale.