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Strategies for Teaching about Slavery and Free Blacks

  • Mini-Glossary: Create a vocabulary reference that can be stored easily in the students' notebooks. Using a piece of lined notebook paper, fold it in lengthwise as shown. Pre-select or have students choose (individually or in groups) key terms from the glossary to write on each strip. Under the strip, have students write the definition and other information as space allows. Encourage relevant artwork that illustrates each term, under the strip and with the definition.

  • Big Ideas: Based on topic concepts and National Standards for History
    Use these Big Ideas to help organize your instruction and focus your students' learning. Keep coming back to them as you read, discuss and work with your class. Students will be able to use these Big Ideas as they study different topics in history in their current grade and in years to come. They can also apply the ideas to the world around them now and in the future.

    1. People move to improve their lives or because they are forced.
    2. Conflict and cooperation result when different groups of people come into contact with each other.
    3. People and cultures survive hardships and many prevail.
    4. Information is passed from generation to generation through writing, drawing, and speaking.
    5. We learn about the past by analyzing what remains from it.

  • Image: "The Old Plantation" illustrates one of the ways that African Americans survived the institution of slavery. Through music, dancing, and storytelling they were able to escape, at least for a brief time, the realities and hardships of their daily lives. Gathering in this way gave them fellowship and hope for a better time to come, whether on Earth or afterward.

    Each generation learned about their cultural roots in their homelands on the continent of Africa through these traditional arts. Slaves also learned information about family background through stories and music. This was critical because most slaves did not read or write.

    Surviving as a slave was difficult. There was much to learn about keeping well, avoiding harm, and living as well as a slave could—without freedom, choice, or respect. The tales and songs told by griots and other older slaves taught proper behavior, morals, and the essentials of surviving slavery to children and other African Americans who hadn't learned them yet. Here's a sampling of some of the morals and survival tips in African-American stories of the era:

    • Make sure you get the facts straight.
    • Don't jump to conclusions.
    • Don't steal.
    • Good things come to those who wait.
    • God will provide.
    • Make the best of your lot in life.

    The last three were particularly useful in coping with the harsh and restrictive reality that faced slaves for most or all of their lives.

    Enslaved Africans were able to resist and rebel in subtle ways. For example, a field slave might break a tool needed to plant or harvest tobacco. This allows him or her to slow down or take a break until it is repaired or a new one is found. A house slave might do something similar to lighten his or her workload, if only for a short while.

    Communication among slaves helped to give them hope and keep them apprised of needed information. For example, female house slaves (perhaps a mother and her two daughters) might receive word that the husband/father will be coming into town from the rural fields for several days' work on buildings in town. This message might have been heard in a tavern by a young male slave and passed along as he went about his errands in town.

    At times, slaves had the hope of improving their circmstances by learning skills that made them more valuable. They could sometimes earn a bit of money for themselves. For example, a field slave might have developed skills in working with wood and be loaned out by his master to work on the interior of another colonist's home.

    The ultimate dream was that of freedom. However, running away meant taking great risks, not only for the runaway, but sometimes for family and friends. Runaway slaves were considered a risk by their owners and may have been sold off the property and separated from family. At times, runaways were dealt with severely, leaving scars and damage to their bodies and souls. Escaping meant getting to a safer place, usually by oneself or in very small groups. Help was needed along the way and wasn't always there.

    Use this analysis sheet (PDF file) to help your students find meaning in the primary source painting "The Old Plantation."

  • Three-Dimensional Graphic Organizer: Three-dimensional graphic organizers help to differentiate instruction and connect to the different learning styles and English language development levels of your students. Also, they are an engaging way for you to gather evidence of understanding. This integration of visual, kinesthetic, and writing skills gives students experience in communicating using different methods.

    Have students work in groups of three or four to read and discuss the primary source and examine the image of the month. Model for them the steps for taking notes on strips of paper and/or note cards. Choose (or have students choose) three categories to sort their notes. Using collaboration and sharing, have students compile a set of organized notes for use as a study tool and a teacher and self-evaluation.

  • Gallery Walk: Take your students into a gallery that they themselves have created—their classroom. Ask students (working in twos, threes, or fours) to design a poster that reveals their understanding of either:

    • Primary sources and slavery, or
    • Three or more Big Ideas (see above)

    Encourage creativity, imagination, and the use of color and artwork. Let them know that the text (what they write) must clearly present what they have learned. Be sure to tell the class that all posters will be displayed proudly in the classroom gallery and that classmates will review them.

    Number the posters and post them on the classroom walls. Direct the class to review as many posters as time allows. Start small groups of students at different places around the gallery. Help them keep track of time and move them through the gallery so that all groups see at least four or five posters (not their own). Be sure they take paper and pencil to complete a separate review sheet for each poster they see. Each group will receive the review slips for its poster after the Gallery Walk is complete and after the teacher has looked at all the sheets.

    These guiding questions will help students respond in writing to the posters they review in this Gallery Walk:

    1. How does this poster help you better understad ideas and details about the lives of slaves?
    2. What facts and concepts presented on the poster do you think are most important and why?
    3. How has this poster caused you to change your thinking about history and slavery?

    As a closing activity and a self-reflection for students, ask them to write answers to the three questions above and complete two more prompts:

    "I think my project helped my classmates understand the Big Ideas (or the topic of slavery) because: ______________________________________________."

    "Based on completing the poster, giving and getting feedback, and reflecting on my work, my goals for the next project are: ____________________________."

Click here to see the entire glossary of terms relating to slaves and free blacks.

This lesson was written by Martha Berner, retired elementary school teacher, San Diego, CA.



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