Introduction

Teaching students about slavery through holding slavery re-enactments in the classroom has been a topic widely debated in the past few years. A few incidents in New York were reported on the news in 2019, and investigations of the teachers who brought these re-enactments to their classrooms were held. Whether or not the educators had good intentions, there are much better ways to teach students of any age about slavery. Exposing the gruesome truths of the slave experience in the United States and the racial discrimination present in society today in the proper way is as important as deciding to teach the subject matter to begin with. The benefits of teaching the youth about slavery are great because the fight for racial equality is not over yet.

Resources

There are many resources available on the web for teaching about slavery. This topic is a very sensitive one and is often taught in a way that doesn’t give African American slaves the respect and recognition they deserve for the hardships they experienced. However, these materials will help you to teach your students about the slave experience properly!

Lesson Plans

  1. Academy 4SC: Find videos related to slavery at Academy 4SC, like Legal vs. Moral: Written vs. Right and Census: Keeping Count, among others. Teachers have access to resources like worksheets, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more included in each topic’s lesson plan. Explore Academy 4SC’s full library of applicable content under the tag Slavery and Slavery Re-enactments.
  2. Teaching Hard History – American Slavery: Teaching Tolerance has created a “comprehensive guide for teaching and learning this critical topic at grade levels” in order to give students “an adequate understanding of the role (slavery) played in the development of the United States—or how its legacies still influence us today.” A framework and additional resources are provided for teaching students in grades K-5 and 6-12 along with one for educators who want to learn more about American slavery before teaching their class about the topic. Various resources, including primary sources, podcasts, webinars, videos, objectives, and essential knowledge about slavery can be found for each grade level.
  3. EDSITEment lessons on Slavery, the Crisis of the Union, the Civil War and Reconstruction: EDSITEment provides a multitude of different lesson plans about slavery and African Americans in antebellum America, causes of the war, Abraham Lincoln and the course of the war, the art and literature of the Civil War, and Reconstruction and after in art and culture. For educators who are looking for plans that focus in on a specific aspect of American slavery or time period before and after the Revolutionary War, this website is a good place to start! Additional related EDSITEment websites, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and others, are linked at the bottom of the page.
  4. Teaching About Slavery in the Elementary Classroom: Scholastic published a blog post a few years back which discusses three common issues that educators face when teaching about American slavery and resources that the author recommends for students in grades 1-5. Some of these resources include Henry’s Freedom Box, Lest We Forget, Unspoken, and other elementary-level books, videos, and interactive whiteboards. Combining a few of these suggestions with supplemental material will give educators enough to teach their younger classes about the sensitive topic of slavery.

Articles

  1. Teaching America’s truth: The Washington Post published an article detailing the troubles educators have run into with teaching their students about slavery because they are not prepared and don’t know how to teach the topic in the right way, using “mock auctions” and other methods in the classroom. The author discusses how historians, educators, and civil rights activists desire to change how schools are teaching about the history of slavery, as segregation in schools and other forms of racial discrimination continue to exist in America. Slavery hasn’t always been taught properly in schools in the past, but the hope is that in the future, teaching the truth about slavery could help change the racial divide.
  2. Classroom Simulations – Proceed With Caution: Here, Ingrid Drake writes about the dangers of classroom simulations when teaching about slavery. Drake recounts the experience of a young girl who was forced to act as a slave on a school field trip for a “learning experience” and the concerns that parents had about this type of learning. She debates whether simulations are teaching tools or trauma traps, and though she recognizes that there is information supporting both sides of the argument, she cautions educators who are considering slavery re-enactments due to the trauma some students take away from it.
  3. What Kids Are Really Learning About Slavery: This article from the Atlantic discusses a report that found that the topic of slavery “is mistaught and often sentimentalized—and students are alarmingly misinformed as a result.” The way that slavery is talked about in the classroom often doesn’t give African American slaves the proper recognition they deserve for the horrors they faced. Therefore, students often misunderstand certain aspects of the slaves’ experiences, especially on an emotional level. The United States still has work to do in learning how to teach about the history of slavery, and reading this article is the first step in many educators understanding the ways in which this topic shouldn’t be taught.

Informational Sites

  1. Slavery in America: History.com provides an article full of key information on the history of slavery, such as when slavery started, the cotton gin, slave rebellions, the abolitionist movement, the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Civil War, and the legacy of slavery. This will be a great source of information for students who need to learn the basic facts about slavery in America and its eventual end. At the end of this article, there is a photo gallery with images on slave trade, slave life, and the battle over slavery.
  2. A History of Slavery in the United States: National Geographic has an interactive timeline of America’s “peculiar institution,” slavery. The most important and key events in the history of slavery in the United States from 1619, when Africans were first enslaved in Virginia, to 1865, when the thirteenth amendment was ratified. Related resources on slavery are located at the bottom of the page.
  3. African Americans – Slavery in the United States: Britannica offers an abundance of information on free blacks and abolitionism, the Civil War era, the era of Reconstruction and after, the Age of Booker T. Washington, the impact of World War I on African Americans, the Garvey Movement and the Harlem Renaissance, African American life during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of great information is offered here for classroom use!

Conclusion

Teaching students about slavery is not an easy job, but it is an important one. The details of slavery that many Americans would rather forget are often glossed over, but giving students the idea that the experiences that African American slaves went through were not as terrible as they truly were helps no one. Learning the history of our nation, even the parts we are ashamed of, is an important part of growing and making sure that something like this never happens again. Holding slavery re-enactments in the classroom isn’t the answer either, as it will only do more harm than good. Utilizing the resources provided above is the first step into planning out how and what you will teach your students about slavery.

Additional Resources

  1. Schools still struggling with how to teach about slavery: This article focuses on the struggle schools are still having with how to teach about slavery. Thompson starts off with talking about the experience that a young African American boy had with a mock auction during a history lesson at school. The memories of this day stuck with him. The author goes on to explain how a few more instances with these simulations affected children. Ultimately, after reading this article, educators will think twice before bringing slavery re-enactments to their classrooms.
  2. How Have You Learned About Slavery?: Times examines how students have learned about slavery at home and in the classroom by looking at readers’ responses. Some readers reported that their schools focused on the “good” parts of slavery while others focused on the little class time dedicated to the topic or the “poorly constructed lessons and demonstrations” they were exposed to. Reading through some of these student responses may give you some greater insight into what bothers your students the most about the way in which they have learned about slavery in the past and therefore what needs to change in the classroom. 
  3. A Brief History of Slavery That You Didn’t Learn in School: The New York Times Magazine published an article providing readers with information on slavery that most Americans still don’t know. Elliot and Hughes write discuss topics under the broader categories of “slavery, power and the human cost,” “the limits of freedom,” and “a slave nation fights for freedom.” Both educators and students will learn much from taking a look at this text and the images that go along with it.