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Teaching Guide

Teaching Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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Cabins can evoke memories of sitting by a fire with a hot cup of cocoa and relaxing as snow falls gently outside. Or they can evoke feelings of isolation and being hunted by demons or psychos with chainsaws while blood spatters the windows.

In other words, cabins are complicated. And Uncle Tom's Cabin is the original complicated cabin tale. We're here to help your classroom discussion be more welcoming and less horror show.

In this guide you will find

  • a roleplaying activity (corsets optional).
  • lessons analyzing Stowe's depiction of slavery in the mid-1800s.
  • historical resources, like articles on Stowe and real-life escape stories.

And much more.

Trade in your hatchets and Necronomicons for worksheets and Shmoop's teaching guide.

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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:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

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Instructions for You

Objective: Uncle Tom's Cabin was written 150 years ago. And since responding to any novel as a modern reader is pretty automatic, this assignment will allows students to put themselves into the shoes (or skirts) of the average early reader of Uncle Tom. What was everyone so up in arms about anyway?

Students will first write about which character in the novel is the best argument against slavery from their own 21st-century point of view; then they will write on the same question, but from the point of view of an 1850s white Northern female. This assignment can be given as homework or done in class. If done in class, writing and discussion should take about 45 minutes.

Materials Needed:

  • Copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Step 1: We know Stowe (like those rhymes?) wrote her novel as an argument against slavery, so let's start by considering her point from a modern perspective. Which character's story in Uncle Tom's Cabin offers the best argument for abolishing slavery, and why? Students will answer this question from their perspective as a 21st-century, skinny-jean-wearing teenager. These responses should be about 250 words and need not be terribly formal, but they should definitely include textual evidence and specific examples to support their opinions.

Step 2: Once students have answered the question as themselves, they'll strap on their corsets and tackle the same question as the average reader of Uncle Tom's Cabin back in the 1850s—a white Northern woman (pause while your guys protest).

Students may need a bit of background info here, so share a few basic facts: most women worked in the home, they had little involvement in politics, church was the one public institution where they were encouraged to be active, and many agreed that the role of wife and mother was the most important role for a woman.

Which character's story would the Northern white female find the most compelling argument for ending the institution of slavery, and why? Refer students to Shmoop's character page as needed.

Step 3: When students finish writing, they can return to their snarky teenage selves and share their responses with the class or in small groups. You can have students read their responses aloud, or just briefly summarize their thoughts.

Then wrap this thing up with some deep discussion:

  • What arguments against slavery do 21st-century people have that 1850s people wouldn't find convincing?
  • In what ways is the book geared towards women? How would the book change if Stowe wanted it to appeal equally to men and women of the 1850s? Is there the same gender gap for modern readers? Why or why not?
  • Can you think of something that would be a compelling argument for the 1850s women, but that modern people find uninteresting?
  • Imagine a literate black woman reading the book in 1850. How would her perspective be different from the Northern white woman? How about a literate black man?
  • Was thinking yourself into the shoes of an 1850s woman hard? What makes you different from her?

Instructions for Your Students

Harriet Beecher Stowe knew that a large part of her audience for Uncle Tom's Cabin would be Northern white women. Southern women would avoid it (well, the South just straight out banned it), black women didn't have a good literacy rate, and the book belonged to a type (read: novel by a female) mostly read by women rather than men.

(When you think about it, aiming a novel about a political issue to a group who doesn't even vote is kind of interesting…)

So let's take a think about how the novel's original readers might have responded… But first, we'll look at how you respond to the novel.

Step 1: People always say, "Just be yourself!" and that is exactly what you are going to do; be yourself: A 21st-century student with a smartphone and a sense of style, who likes whatever you personally like, and thinks whatever you personally think about, you know, the world.

As yourself, you'll answer this question: Which character's story in Uncle Tom's Cabin offers the best argument for abolishing slavery, and why?

You may see right away that this assignment has a lot to do with your values. Do you see Cassie's life of heartbreak and degradation as more horrible than Tom's physical suffering? Or is getting killed the worst that can happen? What about the misery and wasted talent of George the inventor? Or is the existence of people like Simon Legree the best reason to do away with slavery? (Seriously, that guy shouldn't have access to anything with a more complex nervous system than an earthworm.)

Your response should be about 250 words, and don't forget to support your opinion with specific examples and textual evidence.

Step 2: Now that you are done being yourself, you're going to be someone else for a bit. Strap on your corsets because it's time to get into the mind of Stowe's average reader, a Northern white female with a novel reading habit (and guys, that means you too—time to think like a lady).

Before you start, let's review a few basic facts: most women in 1852 worked in the home; they had little involvement in politics, church was the one public institution where they were encouraged to be active, and many agreed that the role of wife and mother was the most important role for a woman. (Yeah, not exactly modern. That was then, this is now.)

So, which character's story would the NWF find the most compelling argument for ending the institution of slavery, and why? Again, write about 250 words and show us some proof.

One more thing: You and the 1850s NWF probably see things pretty differently, but the two of you might agree about which character is the best argument to end slavery—you might just have different reasons.

Step 3: When you finish writing, you can return to yourself and share your responses with the class or in small groups. Then we'll wrap this thing up with some deep discussion:

  • What arguments against slavery do 21st-century people have that 1850s people wouldn't find convincing?
  • In what ways is the book geared towards women? How would the book change if Stowe wanted it to appeal equally to men and women of the 1850s?
  • Is there the same gender gap for modern readers? Why or why not?
  • Can you think of something that would be a compelling argument for the 1850s women, but that modern people find uninteresting?
  • Imagine a literate black woman reading the book in 1850. How would her perspective be different from the Northern white woman? How about a literate black man?
  • Was thinking yourself into the shoes of an 1850s woman hard? What makes you different from her?

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING UNCLE TOM’S CABIN?

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

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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