Social Studies: Teaching a unit on slavery

We have reached our unit on slavery, one of the most difficult and yet most necessary units I teach all  year.  My students come to me with so many misconceptions and questions about slavery – how to address these in a manner that sixth graders can comprehend? how does one address the concept of being enslaved in the first place?  how can this unit be framed in such a way as to connect it to what still goes on in the world today?  Sixth graders have such a strong sense of justice, their moral compass seems set to “true” at this age; I am ever mindful that I must tread carefully – it is important for them to examine the evidence, have time to come to their own conclusions, discuss what they have learned and process the information in a way that allows them to form their own ideas about justice, activism and so on.
When I first began teaching this period in history, I thought it was important for my students to investigate different aspects of slave life – to learn about the conditions they were forced to live under even as they struggled to preserve and nurture a sense of human dignity.  So, I created the “Slave Life Investigation” – a research data bank with information about housing, food, clothing, family life, religion and entertainment and work.  My kids research and write about what they’ve learned – and the results have always been so meaningful and moving…so much more powerful than if I’d stood before a slide show and just presented the information to them, or use the dry and antiseptic three paragraph “summary of a slave’s life” provided by our school text book.  They form  synthesis paragraphs at the end of each task, which  allows for thoughtful reflection about what they’ve just learned, how their thinking was changed, what they found moving and inspirational.

This year, we are also viewing snippets from the  HBO documentary: Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives:

Watching these  narratives, read by distinguished performers like Samuel Jackson and Alfre Woodard, has been such a moving experience.  There is so much power in listening to the delivery of each narrative, as each actor’s voice and demeanor takes on the  emotional weight of the narrated experience.  I have to be careful in sharing just those segments that are appropriate for my sixth graders – not easy to do given the pervasive brutality of the slave experience, and the vocabulary which reflects the vernacular of the time.
Altogether, even though it is an emotionally difficult unit to get through, I find that my kids start to see connections between the ideas they have explored in this unit and other terrible times in history – the Holocaust, genocides they’ve heard about on the news, and other  instances of man’s often extraordinary inhumanity towards other human beings. One of the questions that always pops up is my history class early in the year is: why do we have to know this? study this?  Why do we have to bother with history?  By this unit they have come to understand why we need to do this…yesterday, I had several students say to me: I never knew, I could not believe, I was amazed, now I understand.

That’s why we learn  history.


5 thoughts on “Social Studies: Teaching a unit on slavery

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I wish we could do some weird time travel thing where I get to be in sixth grade again and you’re my teacher. Not because I needed to learn these things — I was fortunate to have parents and other elders who made sure I knew — but because I needed someone to help my classmates know. Even with this very brief description of the unit, it’s clear what a careful, sensitive, not glossed-over job you’re doing. How lucky your students are.

    (You know there’s this silly thing people say about someone or something — usually a really cute puppy or kitten — winning the internet for a day? It came completely unbidden into my brain as I read your post: Tara wins the internet today!)

  2. I’m sure it’s a rich study, Tara, so much to be shared and comprehended, believed? Two questions: do you ever find and connect the slavery going on today to this time, or perhaps it’s too much? And, do you bring in speakers that have a slave background? Just wondering. Isn’t it wonderful to have such good content online as you mentioned! We are lucky to have that area today when before we did not. Thanks for sharing.

    • I wish I could do more than just touch upon modern day slavery – but I feel my kids are too young to be exposed to aspects of modern slavery (sex trafficing, mostly), and so I don’t. There are not many African Americans in the community in which I teach (I have one Afrcan American student this year ) and I am sesnitive about asking. This is something that I know I can do better – perhpas this summer is a good time to begin reaching out to see if I can find people to present. It would make our inquiry so much richer and meaningful, Linda.

  3. Tara,
    This is a difficult topic. We just touch on it when we look at colonial life. One fact that bowled over my 5th graders was that half of the population of Williamsburg in the 18th century were slaves. It is interesting. In some ways may students seem so removed from even civil rights history. Recently the word race came up and all of them had the same reaction to the word it mean to run against someone else. (that’s why they didn’t understand the question) They see this period as so ancient, so long ago. I wonder if that’s one way to make it a more comfortable subject?

    • But it’s not ancient, witness the incident in Nevada, where Clive Bundy went on network news programs to wonder if African Americans were better off “in slavery days.” I feel the same way about this as I do about teaching the Holocaust – we need to know what happened. it should never be a comfortable subject – that’s the whole point to teaching about it.

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