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Teaching Guide

Teaching Abolitionism

Abolish student boredom.

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Slavery. It's over. What not to like?

Well, it's difficult to travel back to a time when slavery was A-OK and people were fighting with their lives to end it.

We're definitely not going to be shackling kids together and leading them on a re-enactment of the Underground Railroad like Lena Dunham did as a kid. We're going to get through this without traumatizing your students.

In this guide you will find

  • information on key figures in the abolitionist movement.
  • tons of insightful, non-traumatizing activities.
  • links to modern articles detailing the legacy of abolitionists over a hundred years later.

It goes without saying: slavery was about as far from easy as you can get. At the very least, learning about it can be a relatively painless experience.

What's Inside Shmoop's History Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring history to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: Usually it's best to get a story straight from the source, but when it comes to history, we're often out of luck—unless we have access to primary source materials, that is. And thankfully, in this case, we do. 

In this activity, your students will review Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in order to gain insight into the lives of slaves. After reading from Jacobs' account of her life in slavery and in hiding, they'll participate in a class discussion. Then, they'll wrap things up by writing an introduction to Jacobs' narrative from the perspective of an abolitionist.

Length of Lesson: 1-2 class periods (one period for students to read and discuss Jacobs' narrative, and possibly one more to either work on their introductions or, if that part is given as homework, share their work).

Materials Needed:

Step One: Either direct your students to this site, where they can read excerpts from Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or hand out printed copies of the text. Give them time to read the narrative independently, or, if you prefer, have them read along while you—or class volunteers—read the narrative aloud. 

Step Two: Once everyone has read the piece, explore it with your students by discussing what the narrative reveals about slavery. Use the questions below to guide your discussion.

  • What makes this narrative so powerful?
  • What does it reveal about the life of a slave?
  • What does it reveal about the institution of slavery?
  • To what extent did this narrative affirm other portraits of slavery? To what extent did it broaden the portrait of slavery?

Step Three: Ask your students to write a two-paragraph introduction to the narrative, written from the perspective of an antebellum abolitionist. This means, of course, that they will be introducing the piece in such a way as to sway their audience and encourage other Southerners to embrace the abolitionist cause. 

To that end, encourage them to think about what images of slavery, slaves, and slaveowners abolitionists would have wanted to present to the public. The following questions may help your students think about all this:

  • Why was Harriet Jacobs' story an attractive narrative among abolitionists?
  • Why did they prefer to disseminate this sort of narrative rather than David Walker's Appeal?
  • What qualities are exhibited by the slaveowner?
  • What qualities are exhibited by the slave?
  • What does this narrative reveal about slave families?

Step Four: If you have time, give students a chance to share their introductions and offer feedback to one another. You can use the following questions to guide the process.

  • What message do you think the author of this introduction was trying to send? How can you tell? What words or phrases help to convey the message?
  • To the author of the introduction being discussed: Did we get it right? Is that what you were trying to say? After hearing this feedback, is there anything you would change?

Instructions for Your Students

Usually it's best to get a story straight from the source. You know that firsthand, right? Because when Bobby tells Cindy what he heard Jan claim Marcia said about Greg... things can get messy. 

Of course, when it comes to history, we're often out of luck. It's hard to get stories that happened hundreds of years ago "straight from the horse's mouth," so to speak—unless we have access to primary source materials, that is. And thankfully, in this case, we do. 

Slave narratives became an important tools used by abolitionists to cultivate support for their cause. One of the most powerful of these was written by Harriet Jacobs, a young woman who escaped from slavery in 1842 and published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861.

Today, you're going to read and discuss Jacobs' narrative to see if you can determine what it is that made it such a powerful piece (and whether or not you still find it powerful today). Then you'll slip into the role of an abolitionist and write an intro to Jacobs' narrative in an attempt to sway people to support your cause—the abolition of slavery in the U.S.

Step One: In class, read this brief excerpt and think about what the narrative reveals about slavery and its impact in 1861.

Step Two: Once everyone has read the piece, explore it with your teacher and classmates by discussing the questions below.

  • What makes this narrative so powerful?
  • What does it reveal about the life of a slave?
  • What does it reveal about the institution of slavery?
  • To what extent did this narrative affirm other portraits of slavery? To what extent did it broaden the portrait of slavery?

Step Three: Imagine that you are an antebellum abolitionist. You've discovered Jacobs' narrative, and now, in order to present it to the public, you need to write a two-paragraph introduction so people will know what they're about to read. Of course, you'll want to introduce the piece in such a way as to sway your audience and encourage other Southerners to embrace the abolitionist cause. 

To that end, take a minute to think about what images of slavery, slaves, and slaveowners abolitionists would have wanted to present to the public. The following questions may help you figure out how you want to craft your introduction.

  • Why was Harriet Jacobs' story an attractive narrative among abolitionists?
  • Why did they prefer to disseminate this sort of narrative rather than David Walker's Appeal?
  • What qualities are exhibited by the slaveowner?
  • What qualities are exhibited by the slave?
  • What does this narrative reveal about slave families?

Step Four: If there's time, you'll have a chance to share your introduction, receive some feedback, and offer feedback to your classmates. 

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING ABOLITIONISM?

Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary & Analysis    Timeline    People    Facts    Photos    Best of the Web    Citations    
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