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Teacher Grants: TeachNet Power to Learn

In their Own Words: the Slave Narratives

In this unit, students learn about slavery through the actual words of former slaves. Using the slave narratives from the Library of Congress, students learn the structure of, and how to negotiate, an LOC database. They learn to identify, use, and evaluate primary sources. From the rambling, dialect-written text, they find important details and summarize the events of the narrator’s life. The culminating project is a short PowerPoint presentation that includes a title slide, a picture of the slave, and a slide of summarizing text that the student reads. If appropriate, students also include a slide with direct quotations from the narrator. The unit gives a human face and voice to this period of our history and, to a lesser extent, the 1930s when the narratives were collected.

Subject Area
Library, Social Studies, Language Arts, Technology

Grade Levels

Students identify primary sources, explain strengths and weaknesses of personal accounts in history, negotiate a Library of Congress database, analyze a document and write a summary, and compare and contrast the life of former slaves before and after emancipation.

Internet Used
The Internet is integral to this unit; the narratives are from the Library of Congress website. One of the objectives is to teach children how to independently negotiate an LOC database. In addition, the student study guide that accompanies the documentary beginning this unit is viewed on laptops.

Materials Used
The unit requires a computer with Internet access for at least every two children. PowerPoint is used for the final product. Word or Publisher is used to print out narratives. Also required are some method for Internet demonstration and whole-class viewing of the presentations, a copy of HBO’s Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives (DVD or VHS), and a method for viewing.

Standards Addressed
Social Studies students know the roots of American culture, its development from different traditions, and the ways many people from a variety of groups and backgrounds played a role in creating it. Students explore the lifestyles, beliefs, traditions, rules and laws, and social/cultural needs and wants of people during different periods in history. They view historic events through the eyes of participants, and access, evaluate, and use information effectively and creatively. Students read, write, listen, and speak for information and understanding, and for critical analysis and evaluation; evaluate information, ideas, opinions, and themes in texts by identifying a central idea and supporting details, and use technology to retrieve, process, and communicate information.

See Slave Narrative List.

Students Involved
This unit was designed for four classes of approximately 28 fifth-grade students of mixed abilities, with two of the classes having a small group of mainstreamed students. A knowledge of PowerPoint is useful.

Teacher Tips
Before teaching the unit, teachers should acquaint themselves with the selected narratives. Less able students can then be assigned the most accessible narratives. Encouraging students to read the narrative aloud helps them to figure out the dialect. Some students prefer to work alone, but most students benefit from a partner. Before using Unchained Narratives, students should know that it uses both archival film clips and staged pieces of film, and that the actors read the actual slave narratives, but sometimes we see the actor talking about the role. The interplay of past and present is extremely effective but can confuse young students. Two books complement this unit: Julius Lester’s From Slave Ship to Freedom Road and Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly. Other supplementary resources include the links at the bottom of the slave narrative list. Three are for other databases that have pictures. If students finish early, they can search for relevant pictures. There is also a link to slave narrative recordings that could be used with aural learners.

Overall Value
Using the documentary Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives, coupled with their inherent interest in the subject, keeps students engaged. As students learn to search and move through the Born in Slavery database, they are learning how to negotiate all of the Library of Congress databases. Higher-level thinking skills are taught as students evaluate primary sources, analyze a document, work with dialect and language patterns with which they are unfamiliar, and generalize from specific examples to draw conclusions about the whole.

Anne Bryant

Anne Bryant has been a teacher librarian for four years. She works for the Clarkstown Central School district in New City, New York.

Teaching is a second career. She has a masters degree in psychology and for the first half of her professional life worked as a psychologist. She was a stay-at-home mother until her youngest daughter entered kindergarten. She then began a Publication Center in her daughters’ school which is now in its eleventh year of operation. Her full-time volunteer job eventually became a part-time computer T.A. position. When her contemporaries were planning retirement, she went back to school for her masters in Library Science.



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