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.