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February 1, 2016

Teaching About Slavery in the Elementary Classroom

By Christy Crawford
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    As teachers, we often fail to realize our powerful influence in the classroom. (Remember how you ran around the house quoting everything your teachers said?) In the classroom, educators can perpetuate years of misinformation and hurtful stereotypes, or they can empower young people with knowledge.

    There are millions of 21st century teachers who use multiple digital and print sources to answer the needs and curiosities of each student. These pedagogues question each author’s motives. They ask from whose perspective the story is told, who benefits from each perspective, and if there is a different way to accurately tell the story. But, of course, there are still dilemmas when teaching about subjects as complex and sensitive as slavery.

    Read on for three common issues every educator faces when teaching about American slavery. Then scroll down for some of my favorite resources when discussing "the peculiar institution."

    1. “I’m afraid of offending someone.”
    Truth isn’t offensive; allowing fear to prevent education is offensive. If your study includes a true depiction of historical figures (both black and white) that are relatable and shows each figure's journey from victim to victor or from bystander to upstander — no one will be offended. They’ll end up asking you for more! Stories of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds are the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

    2.  “Aren’t they too young to learn about slavery?”
    No. Conversations about skin color begin in preschool. Conversations about courage and being an upstander begin by second grade. I’ve traditionally tied themes of diversity, courage, and activism to slavery in the second semester of second or third grade. Child psychologist and race relations expert Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum began conversations about slavery with her child when he was 4. She suggests using picture books to begin conversations about slavery and opposing injustice. Check out Tatum’s article, "It’s Not So Black and White," in Scholastic Teacher magazine for more.

    3. #Awkward,CRAZYAwkward!”
    Tatum suggests, “When discussing a sensitive topic such as slavery, make sure (students) are treated respectfully as individuals. Follow the rule yourself and don’t allow children to be treated as if they represent an entire racial group.”

    Many African-American students can vividly recall when the teacher did not do this, engaged in some odd role-play, or insisted on using a textbook that painted Africans as cultureless, passive beings. Check your sources before introducing any resource to children, and review your lesson plan with a variety of trusted educators or parents. 


    Treasured Resources for Teaching About America’s "Peculiar Institution"

    Read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass in comic book form! My 7-year-old will ditch an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to reread this READ 180 favorite!

     

    Easily answer a multitude of student questions such as, "Could you buy yourself?" or "How would you hear about Canada?" in Ellen Levine's reference book, If You Traveled On the Underground Railroad

     

    Investigate one of the most ingenious escapes in American history with Henry's Freedom Box, also by Levine. Students will be in awe of Henry Brown's daring attempt to travel from Virginia to Pennsylvania in a box less than 3' x 3' x 3' via express mail! Use Levine's picture book to spark online research to discover more facts about Brown, the loss of his family, and his journey.  

     

    Read Kim L. Siegelson's and Brian Pinkney's In the Time of The Drums to hear the haunting tale of the Ibo people of Africa and their encounter with Twi, a matriarch of the Gullah Islands.

     

    A high-end pop-up book for the passage from Africa, slavery and emancipation? Yes. Lest We Forget will be the most worn and well-used book in your African-American history library. Velma Maia Thomas' interactive book with photographs and recreated documents from the Black Holocaust Exhibit is excellent for upper elementary students or adults. Readers can "slide the lid off a tobacco tin to remove the treasure within: a former slave's freedom papers," or "hold in (their) hands an authentic receipt for a woman sold into slavery."

     

    "Read" Henry Cole's wordless story, Unspoken, to begin discussions about the things ordinary people can do stop injustice. Cole, a former elementary school teacher, has readers explore abolitionism in this graphic tale of a young girl who assists a runaway slave.

     

    Barbara Herkert's Sewing Stories is the beautifully illustrated story of Harriet Powers, a renowned folk artist and story quilter. Herket's book highlights interesting historical facts about Powers and the time period. Additionally, it contains beautiful photographs of her most famous quilt.

        

    This fast-paced Faith Ringgold classic follows the journey of Cassie Louise Lightfoot on the Underground Railroad. It's a must for any American history library for young children.

     

    Click the picture to watch a Harriet Tubman video short. It's a great, quick way to start morning meeting or kick off Harriet Tubman read-alouds! See my post, "Contemporary Images for Black History Month," or check out Because of Them We Can for more such videos. 

     

    To get digital natives fully vested in your study, blast Scholastic's Underground Railroad offerings on your interactive whiteboard. Turn out the lights and have your students listen to real accounts from young and old survivors about their lives on the plantation and their heroic escapes. Have students complete a coded letter for the Underground Railroad or partake in a Harriet Tubman Web Hunt

     

    Use Tonya Bolden's Maritcha, A Nineteenth-Century American Girl, as a reference tool for upper elementary students. Pull excerpts about this freeborn New Yorker to explore the life of a free African-American family.   

    What great resources are you using? Please comment to add to the book list and share your knowledge with our teaching community.

    What dilemmas have you incurred (as teacher or as student) when slavery was the topic? What solutions or tips can you offer? 
     

    For more Black History Month resources see my posts:

    "Rosa Parks — The Movie! 7 Questions for Substantive Conversation"

    "Capturing Stories of the Civil Rights Movement"

    "Picture Books for America's Favorite Pastime"

     

    As teachers, we often fail to realize our powerful influence in the classroom. (Remember how you ran around the house quoting everything your teachers said?) In the classroom, educators can perpetuate years of misinformation and hurtful stereotypes, or they can empower young people with knowledge.

    There are millions of 21st century teachers who use multiple digital and print sources to answer the needs and curiosities of each student. These pedagogues question each author’s motives. They ask from whose perspective the story is told, who benefits from each perspective, and if there is a different way to accurately tell the story. But, of course, there are still dilemmas when teaching about subjects as complex and sensitive as slavery.

    Read on for three common issues every educator faces when teaching about American slavery. Then scroll down for some of my favorite resources when discussing "the peculiar institution."

    1. “I’m afraid of offending someone.”
    Truth isn’t offensive; allowing fear to prevent education is offensive. If your study includes a true depiction of historical figures (both black and white) that are relatable and shows each figure's journey from victim to victor or from bystander to upstander — no one will be offended. They’ll end up asking you for more! Stories of bravery in the face of insurmountable odds are the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters.

    2.  “Aren’t they too young to learn about slavery?”
    No. Conversations about skin color begin in preschool. Conversations about courage and being an upstander begin by second grade. I’ve traditionally tied themes of diversity, courage, and activism to slavery in the second semester of second or third grade. Child psychologist and race relations expert Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum began conversations about slavery with her child when he was 4. She suggests using picture books to begin conversations about slavery and opposing injustice. Check out Tatum’s article, "It’s Not So Black and White," in Scholastic Teacher magazine for more.

    3. #Awkward,CRAZYAwkward!”
    Tatum suggests, “When discussing a sensitive topic such as slavery, make sure (students) are treated respectfully as individuals. Follow the rule yourself and don’t allow children to be treated as if they represent an entire racial group.”

    Many African-American students can vividly recall when the teacher did not do this, engaged in some odd role-play, or insisted on using a textbook that painted Africans as cultureless, passive beings. Check your sources before introducing any resource to children, and review your lesson plan with a variety of trusted educators or parents. 


    Treasured Resources for Teaching About America’s "Peculiar Institution"

    Read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass in comic book form! My 7-year-old will ditch an episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to reread this READ 180 favorite!

     

    Easily answer a multitude of student questions such as, "Could you buy yourself?" or "How would you hear about Canada?" in Ellen Levine's reference book, If You Traveled On the Underground Railroad

     

    Investigate one of the most ingenious escapes in American history with Henry's Freedom Box, also by Levine. Students will be in awe of Henry Brown's daring attempt to travel from Virginia to Pennsylvania in a box less than 3' x 3' x 3' via express mail! Use Levine's picture book to spark online research to discover more facts about Brown, the loss of his family, and his journey.  

     

    Read Kim L. Siegelson's and Brian Pinkney's In the Time of The Drums to hear the haunting tale of the Ibo people of Africa and their encounter with Twi, a matriarch of the Gullah Islands.

     

    A high-end pop-up book for the passage from Africa, slavery and emancipation? Yes. Lest We Forget will be the most worn and well-used book in your African-American history library. Velma Maia Thomas' interactive book with photographs and recreated documents from the Black Holocaust Exhibit is excellent for upper elementary students or adults. Readers can "slide the lid off a tobacco tin to remove the treasure within: a former slave's freedom papers," or "hold in (their) hands an authentic receipt for a woman sold into slavery."

     

    "Read" Henry Cole's wordless story, Unspoken, to begin discussions about the things ordinary people can do stop injustice. Cole, a former elementary school teacher, has readers explore abolitionism in this graphic tale of a young girl who assists a runaway slave.

     

    Barbara Herkert's Sewing Stories is the beautifully illustrated story of Harriet Powers, a renowned folk artist and story quilter. Herket's book highlights interesting historical facts about Powers and the time period. Additionally, it contains beautiful photographs of her most famous quilt.

        

    This fast-paced Faith Ringgold classic follows the journey of Cassie Louise Lightfoot on the Underground Railroad. It's a must for any American history library for young children.

     

    Click the picture to watch a Harriet Tubman video short. It's a great, quick way to start morning meeting or kick off Harriet Tubman read-alouds! See my post, "Contemporary Images for Black History Month," or check out Because of Them We Can for more such videos. 

     

    To get digital natives fully vested in your study, blast Scholastic's Underground Railroad offerings on your interactive whiteboard. Turn out the lights and have your students listen to real accounts from young and old survivors about their lives on the plantation and their heroic escapes. Have students complete a coded letter for the Underground Railroad or partake in a Harriet Tubman Web Hunt

     

    Use Tonya Bolden's Maritcha, A Nineteenth-Century American Girl, as a reference tool for upper elementary students. Pull excerpts about this freeborn New Yorker to explore the life of a free African-American family.   

    What great resources are you using? Please comment to add to the book list and share your knowledge with our teaching community.

    What dilemmas have you incurred (as teacher or as student) when slavery was the topic? What solutions or tips can you offer? 
     

    For more Black History Month resources see my posts:

    "Rosa Parks — The Movie! 7 Questions for Substantive Conversation"

    "Capturing Stories of the Civil Rights Movement"

    "Picture Books for America's Favorite Pastime"

     

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