Slavery Unit Reflection

The results are in. These data are based on surveys the students completed at the end of the unit.  Just over half of my students agreed to let me use their responses (I included an “opt-in” checkbox on the survey).


Slavery Most Effective

Sample student responses

Modern Day Slavery

“I think the most effective lesson in my opinion was Modern Day Slavery because it made everyone realize this is still happening in front of our eyes and around the world”

“Modern Day Slavery because I learned so much about what is going on in our world right now that I had no idea about.”

“Modern Day Slavery because even though other lessons were powerful, this really prepared us and got our emotions  show through before we start it.”

Middle Passage

“Middle Passage because I felt so much empathy toward the slaves.”

“The most effective lesson in the slavery unit was the Middle Passage because it taught us how they got here and what happened before they were in plantations.”

“The most effective was the Middle Passage because I really felt bad about how the slaves were taken from their homeland and it spoke to me.”

Slave Codes

“The Slave Codes because they really outline what we were learning and it talks about the treatment of slaves.”

Narrative of Frederick Douglass

“Frederick Douglass was the most effective because it was his words telling how horrible it was.”

“Frederick Douglass: I liked hearing an actual opinion or ideas from someone who was physically involved in slavery and knows how hard it was.”

“The story of Frederick Douglass gave us a first-hand account of the brutalities of slavery. Seeing how much disrespect for human life the slave owners gave their slaves made me absolutely appalled.”

My thoughts

I was very happy with the students overall emotional connection to the topic across multiple lessons.  I definitely invested more in the Modern Day Slavery and Frederick Douglass lessons. I think a lot of students preferred the Middle Passage unit because we watched a video. I knew the slave codes was the weakest component even as I was planning it.


Slavery Least Effective



Sample student responses

Modern Day Slavery

“Modern Day Slavery because we didn’t spend a lot of time on it and there wasn’t a lot to learn.”

“Modern Day Slavery I thought was the least effective because it did tell us what was going on today with slavery, but it did not give information about the past, and we were studying the past.”

“The topic of Modern Day Slavery was the least effective because we did not see the disrespect given to the slaves as much as we did in the other topics. Mr. Walp should still keep this lesson in to show that the issue of slavery is still alive.”

Middle Passage

“Middle Passage because we were just told about it, we didn’t get to hear about it from someone who experienced it.”

“Middle Passage because I already knew that the slaves came to America with terrible conditions. I didn’t learn much new stuff.”

“The Middle Passage because I can’t comprehend what it was really like.”

Slave Codes

“Slave codes. I think the stories and actual examples were more impactful and meaningful than the slave codes themselves.”

“The Slave Codes because you did not get any emotion in that.”

“Slave Codes because it was more the political side, and sometimes numbers and cold hard facts don’t sink in as much.”

Narrative of Frederick Douglass

“Frederick Douglass because it only showed the view of one slave.”

“I feel like the least effective lesson was about Frederick Douglass. I didn’t like this lesson because it’s ending was short and there weren’t a lot of details.”

“Frederick Douglass because we already knew all of that from the slave codes.”

My thoughts:

Modern Day Slavery – Overall very solid. The point of the lesson was not to go into high detail about modern day slavery, but to build empathy. I think the evidence strongly suggests that it accomplished that goal.

Middle Passage – This lesson didn’t have a focus on one person, but it was a video so it was easy to visualize. I was this close to including primary source excerpts from Olaudah Equiano but I was concerned that it would be too overwhelming (in terms of workload) when combined with the Frederick Douglass narrative.

Slave Codes – Why oh why didn’t I include some runaway slave advertisements?  That was definitely a lost opportunity. This lesson was a classic example of knowing that it wasn’t quite right, but not sure how to fix it at the time. I think that the Virginia slave codes lesson was fine, but I overreached on the broader timeline of slavery. The main concern is that I don’t want to just focus on Virginia, it is important for students to realize that slavery was legal and enforced everywhere during the colonial period, not just the South. I think if I revamp the timeline and add some runaway slave ads this will be much better for next time.

Frederick Douglass – Looking back, I actually wasn’t super clear that this reading was supposed to represent the general condition of slaves, so it is easy to understand how some students might have thought it was too specific. Happily, several students were upset that we didn’t read the entire autobiography! I am totally interested in doing that next year. We could read the whole thing still do close reading for a few passages.


Comments and feedback welcome!

It begins…


Today was the first day that I met with interested students that wanted to do something about modern day slavery.

As promised, I assured them that we were starting with a blank slate. Anything we do as group will have to be driven by their work…but they’ll have a lot of support and encouragement. Our principal is enthusiatically on board. The student council has already agreed to support whatever activities we develop. The guidance counselor has already sent me an article to share. It’s go time.

I created an Edmodo group to serve as a our rough draft area to post and explore links. I introduced them to Edmodo in the fall, so other than the requisite “I forgot my password” issues, it only took a few minutes to get up an running.

Once things got settled down, we had about 25 minutes to find resources and share to the Edmodo page. We are set to meet again next Wednesday, I asked them to take a few minutes in the next week to find and post some more links and/or comment on links already on the page. Basically, any students that ACTUALLY do that are self-identifying as the group leaders as far as I am concerned.

Edmodo is great, but we need share resources publicly as well, so I compiled their findings to a page.

That’s about it so far, but it feels good to get started. In future meetings, we’ll have to get more organized about doing targeted research and setting some goals. I expect the group to thin out a bit as we get to the “work” phase, but as long as we have a solid handful, we can get things done.


Comments and feedback welcome!

Survivor #50595

Our English classes are studying literature from the Holocaust, and today Holocaust survivor Julius Jacobs came to to tell his story to our entire 8th grade class. In addition to visiting our school for the past ten years, Julius has spoken to dozens of other schools, churches and civic groups.

I’ve took Holocaust studies as an undergrad, read survivor autobiographies, and I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., but I’ve never personally had the opportunity to hear a survivor account in person. Of course, it’s just different…more powerful. Basically, I got to have the experience that I wanted my students to have when we looked at modern day slavery.

It was particularly crushing to see and hear the Julius’s anguish, even 70 years later, as he recalled the last time he saw his mother and father at “the selection” in Auschwitz. Julius was actually selected not once, but twice for selection himself, and both times was saved by good fortune.

The last question Julius took from the a student in the audience was, “Why do you keep telling your story?

Julius’s answer was elegant and heartfelt. He swore to God that if he survived, he would spend his life telling others what happened. He wants us to never forget what people are capable of if they are governed by fear and hate. Do not judge others for their differences. Our differences do not matter. We are all one people.

Sometimes life just drops a teachable moment in your lap.

When we got back to class, I asked the students to consider the similarities between experiences of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, and experiences of the African slaves. Here are some of the comparisons they came up with.

Both Jews and Africans were:

Killed in the millions.

Forced to work as slaves for the benefit of their masters.

Mistreated or killed by their captors for any reason…or no reason.

Allowed barely enough food, clothing or shelter to survive.

Died from starvation, disease and suicide.

Forcibly separated from their families.

Persecuted simply for belonging to a certain group.

Treated as “other” or “less than”.


Julius Jacobs dedication page

Comments and feedback welcome!

Close Reading: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


I won’t lie…although I don’t regret any of the lessons I’ve developed, or the discussions we’ve had in class, this slavery unit is starting to feel too long. It’s hard to tell though, we’ve had so many school cancellations and delays for weather, plus the President’s Day holiday, that my perspective is probably off. All told I think it will be three total weeks of class by the time all is said and done. A long unit to be sure, but not crazy long. But still, if I’m starting to feel it, then the students must certainly be ready to move on. Oh well, in the home stretch now.

After our introduction with modern day slavery, we examined the horrors of the Middle Passage, the Virginia slave codes, and a comprehensive timeline of slavery throughout all of the thirteen colonies. One of my overarching goals for this unit was to help my students to appreciate the full extent and power of the system that was in place to virtually eliminate any possibility that slaves would fight back or try to run away…because if they don’t understand that simple, powerful truth, then I fear that the inevitable, if unstated, conclusion would be that the slaves were too unintelligent, weak, or cowardly to do so.

As a culminating activity for our slavery unit, I wanted to use a primary source to help students see daily life from a slave’s point of view. Our curriculum does not extend to the mid-1800’s, but I felt that the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was the best overall resource available due to its relatively accessible language, vivid imagery, and well-known author. Additionally, I wanted to finally try my hand at a structured close reading lesson, something which I had never done before.

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a fairly quick read at only 188 pages, but close reading is a time intensive activity, so I knew that I wanted to work with an abridged version. Luckily, the work is in the public domain and available in full text online, so it only took an hour or so to create a customized primary source to fit perfectly within the unit! I decided to focus on the first few chapters where Douglass describes his life as a child in slavery.

I took about ten minutes or so to introduce Frederick Douglass to the class. When students arrived, the picture above was on the screen. When I asked students if they had heard of Douglass, many hands went up, but only a few knew anything concrete about him. The most common knowledge was that he used to be a slave. I gave a brief overview of his life, including some context on the national and regional attitudes toward slavery in his time. Then I showed a quick video introduction, which largely reinforced what I had already presented. On a side note, I found a surprising dearth of short Frederick Douglass biographies on YouTube given his importance in our country’s history. There were a handful of longer format documentaries, but the video below was one of the few worth using that was under 5 minutes run time.



The abridged text that we used included excerpts from three chapters of the Narrative, so I basically just repeated the procedure below three times. I think that pacing is a particularly important concern with close reading to keep it from getting bogged down. I actually used a little electronic stopwatch during steps 2, 3, 4 and 6. Even so, with the introduction, and a follow up day for the students to complete an activity reflection and develop a rough draft, the whole lesson will take us six days to complete.

Step 1: Read aloud

Each chapter excerpt is only 3-5 paragraphs, so this part only took a few minutes. I read aloud while students silently read along. Since the passage was fairly short, I took a little bit of time to bring it to life a bit by speeding up, slowing down or pausing to build tension, and changing my inflection to cue students to particularly strong ideas. However, I did not give additional commentary or context…it’s OK for students to come out of this part with questions for clarification.

Once I finished reading, I told the students which paragraphs we are going to focus on for deeper analysis. (For each chapter, I pre-selected two paragraphs for close reading and discussion.)

Step 2: Re-read and post it

Students had 3-5 minutes (depending on the class) to silently re-read the two paragraphs and use colored Post-It strips to highlight important information. I asked them to use one pink strip for each paragraph, and least one yellow strip for both paragraphs combined. At first, I said that students only needed to use a yellow strip to mark a spot that they didn’t understand but, surprise surprise, very few students were willing use a cute little flag to inform me and their peers that they didn’t “get it”. However, one simple change yielded great results!


Step 3: Reader 1/Reader 2 annotations

Each student was given a graphic organizer that aligns with the paragraphs of the reading.

Students had five minutes to complete annotations as Reader 1. I repeatedly reinforced the idea that they should respond to the reading, rather than just try to summarize it. Bullet points were OK. Opinions, emotions, and personal connections were OK. The Post It notes were a great anchor for this part, and I told them, “If you don’t know what to write, write about your Post It notes.”

Then, students had another five minutes to do second round of annotations as Reader 2. To ensure that they saw a variety of responses, I did not have students pair up. Instead, they exchanged papers in their small groups a different way (clockwise – counterclockwise – diagonal) for each chapter. They had to read the Reader 1 comments before they wrote anything as Reader 2. They could not repeat any information. However, they could respond to Reader 1 by agreeing, disagreeing, adding more information, etc. I think that the Reader 2 role was a bit tricky for students to “get” at first, but by the second time around, they were doing great.

Step 4: Pair and share small group discussion

Three to five minutes for students to talk about their annotations in their small groups. This is one of my most frequently used strategies, so the students are very accomplished at it by this point. I feel it is a terrific way for all students to share, and hear different ideas prior to, or during, class discussion.

Step 5: Class discussion

I did not have set agenda for this part because I wanted to be responsive to their questions and concerns. Again, my goal was for students to have a general sense of the daily life of a slave, rather than recall any one specific fact. However, since we were only discussing two paragraphs of text, it was pretty easy to hit all of the main ideas in 15-20 minutes. I use numbered popsicle sticks for random selection, so I just grabbed four or five and started calling on people…summarize each paragraph, what quote did you pick and why, what else did you want to know that wasn’t in the text, etc.

Step 6: Summary journal

Students had 10 minutes to complete a summary of the two paragraphs. We do 3-5 sentence journals almost everyday as warm ups or exit slips, so they are very comfortable with that. Even so, I was initially surprised at how much longer it took the students to summarize the text, but in retrospect, that made sense given that we were using a primary source instead of a textbook.



So, I am still in the middle of things (we are doing class discussion for the second chapter tomorrow), but it seems to be going well so far. I am definitely looking forward to the students’ feedback on their unit reflection journals!


Check out what the students thought about this lesson!


Comments and feedback welcome!

Student Responses to Modern Day Slavery

These are a sampling of student response to our lesson on Modern Day Slavery. All quotes are printed with permission of the authors.


“We are all living on the same earth, and we are supposed to all be equal importance, but still people are enslaved without choice.”

“The whole idea of stealing someone’s life to benefit your own makes me wonder what people think justifies their actions, and how they can go so long staring at people break down in front of them.”

“It angers me that there are still so many people that are slaves. Every single human being has rights, so why do some people treat them like they have none? The word that comes to mind when I think of slavery is captivity. This is because those people are held against their will, but they know nothing else. They are literally like animals in a zoo because of the way people treat them.”

“It is very upsetting to know that people in the land of the free are still in slavery. How are we letting that happen anywhere, even more so in our own country?”

“I don’t understand how people could have slaves. It is so wrong to have somebody else do work that nobody should go through just to make your life better. There should be more people that are educated about slavery so we can end it. I think we all take the way our lives are for granted, but so many of us forget about all those who have no choice in how they live their lives.”

“When I saw the images on the video, I was so angry, screaming inside, that this should be illegal. The children had to work so hard, and I thought that school was hard. I think that the U.S.A. should help and donate. Then again, I think that if we donate money and food the slave owners will just keep it for themselves and not tell the slaves. If I could, I would donate anything to the slaves personally.”

“I feel disgusted at myself. 5 years ago I would cry if I didn’t get the toy I wanted, but 5 years ago there were children even younger than me being killed over money. Most of the older slaves are slaves who have survived the harsh conditions from a young age. Once you are a slave you can’t ever be free again. Those young children will be working forever. They won’t have a life. Looking back on it, I have taken so many things for granted. A house, school, bed and food are all things slaves don’t receive. They will probably never have the chance to be a normal human being.”

“I am disgusted by the slave owners. It is disgusting that some people have the mindset that they are more important than other people; that some people are unequal to them.”

“I am just so angry and upset that people can be so cruel towards other humans. They don’t have the decency to treat them right. People are more focused on money than morals and doing the right thing. I’m just ashamed that parts of our society has come to this. I was very upset that young children will not have a real life or good future, but will have to endure the trauma. I think we need to help make a change and we all can try. This just made me really thankful for my freedom.”

“I am so disappointed. I can’t believe no one is doing something about this. If I were those girls I would be scared and alone.”

“I don’t understand how this is even possible to happen in such open areas. Why can’t people stop slavery? I feel so stupid and helpless because I can’t do anything to help stop it, because we don’t even know when or where it is going on.”

“I can’t believe that slavery still exists. I had no idea until today. No one should be treated the way those people are. People who have slaves are wasting so many lives. I hope that one day slavery wouldn’t exist. I feel so bad for the people who can’t even drink fresh water. I take so much for granted.”

“I think that we should end slavery because it is not fair that they have to do physical labor their whole lives without getting paid and having no education. They should get the same chances that we get like to go to school and get a job.”

“Not am I just angry, I am furious. This is unfair that this is happening to these people. Why are we not freeing them? Why are we not giving them the life that every human deserves? Why do so many people sit back and not even think about this? People should stop worrying about money and actually focus on the real problems in this world.”

“I think that it’s really depressing that an issue that involves so many people, not as many people know it’s going on. I think it’s unfair that some people are free their entire lives and some are trapped forever in a never-ending cycle, never to escape and waiting for someone to come help. Some people never have happy endings.”

“I think that I am so selfish for being sad because these people have no clue that there is even a life out there for them. That’s their life…working. They don’t even know they are slaves, they think it is normal because they have no way to know. They don’t deserve that.”

“A crushing feeling. One that reminds you that it was there every time you breath. There is no way to explain it, but I suppose it is guilt. I feel guilty because I know with every breath I take, someone that I never met is taking their last because we, as a society, didn’t do enough.”

“The world is crazy it is all about money and politics. But no one pays attention to the people who need it most.”

“The people who are enslaved are trapped and can’t escape, and their lives are ruined. It’s scary to think about not having any possible chance of a bright future when we are making a big deal about our high school classes.”

“I can’t believe that these things happen to innocent people. I feel ashamed at our world and what people do. Slavery is absolutely the worst thing ever. Now I think what if that was me? I can never stand to do that.”


Comments and feedback welcome!

Building Empathy: Modern Day Slavery

We are about to spend two weeks examining the institution of slavery in colonial America. However, to kick off the unit, I decided to spend two days exploring the idea of modern day slavery. I did this for two reasons:

  1. To help my students develop an appropriate emotional connection to the people they were going to learn about.
  2. To increase the overall relevance of the unit.

I was a bit nervous going in, because this was my first time developing a lesson specificially to build empathy (what if they rebelled against it…or even worse, didn’t care?). But nevertheless, I felt strongly that the effort was worth the risk, and was cautiously optimistic that it would be successful.

Day One: Global Connections

Coming in the door, students saw this map on the board.

Percentage of population that is enslaved.

Source: Washington Post

Happily, many students stopped to examine the map, and even talk about it as they realized what they were looking at.

I spent about five minutes introducing the idea of modern day slavery using the map to highlight “hot spots” like India, S.E. Asia, and Africa, but also to demonstrate the truly global scale, and the fact that United States was part of it.

Then, I told them we were going to use a series of videos to look deeper at modern day slavery, and that it might make them a little sad or mad…but that would be an appropriate response. I did not want them to take any notes during the videos, they just needed to really watch. At the end of the day, they would write a short journal response. (We do a lot of reflection work in class, so they are quite used to using journals as an exit ticket). To prevent the mood from being broken, I had the students get paper and pencil ready to go before the viewing the videos.

The first video was a excellent, quick summary of the facts and figures of modern day slavery. I stopped the video once to explain the concept of trafficking, and how that was what happened to the Africans during the colonial slave trade.


The second video was a real gut-punch in terms of generating empathy. The students were riveted. On a side note, watching this five periods in a row was a bit draining for me.


The students were pretty subdued when I turned the lights on afterward, and there were tears evident here and there. I quietly asked them to spend the last few minutes writing. They could write whatever they wanted. I would eventually collect it, but it wasn’t for a grade. If they wanted to write anonymously, they did not have to put their name on it. It was more important that they express themselves honestly.

Day Two: Close to Home

The warm up for the second day was a PowerPoint slide of a brief journal relfection I created in response to the TED video.

“Although I knew about modern day slavery already, the video really made it more real for me because I saw pictures of people actually living in slavery today. It’s weird to think that right at this moment, they are still out there suffering.”

I shared my thoughts and feelings about the videos, and then asked the students to pair-and-share with partners for a few minutes about their own reaction to the previous day’s content.

While the previous day had focused on global slavery, I wanted to bring the issue closer to home and show students that modern day slavery exists in the United States as well. Again, I asked students to simply watch the final video without taking notes, but assured them that we would have time for discussion and journaling afterward.

I think this video was powerful because it was recent, occured close to us (I teach in Pennsylvania), and the girls that were held in slavery were young, worked in the open, and lived in an ordinary-looking neighborhood. Additionally, I thought it important to hear stories of people that had escaped or been rescued from slavery.


When the video concluded, I told my students that I thought it important that we discuss what we had seen over the past two days. However, I only wanted them to share if they were comfortable, so I promised not to call on anyone unless they volunteered. To provide a non-verbal means of group expression, and to provide structure for the discussion, I invited students to come up to the white board and write a word that best represented their feelings. I led the way by writing “Guilty” and “Hope”. And then I waited…

Each class responded differently. In some, students immediately got up and started writing. In others, there was a bit of hesistation as everyone waited for someone else to go first. My honors class was particularly apprehensive. After a minute or so I helped them out by quickly reading through the lists of words that the other classes had created. That worked like a charm, and students immediately rushed to the board.

Student reaction to modern day slavery


I started discussion by talking about my two words.

Guilty: I feel guilty because I have a good life with a lot of opportunities, and it is painful to see and hear about so many other people trapped in horrible situations. I also have to admit that I’m at least a little bit a part of the problem because some of the things that I own were probably made in part from slave labor. (I didn’t want to beat them over the head with this, but I thought it important to make a connection to the larger global system).

Hopeful: Although the problem is big and scary, it was important to see and hear examples of people that are fighting against it, and people that have escaped or been rescued. (I wanted to plant the seed they can take action. I am hoping to leverage this lesson into a larger service project).

To give all students a chance to verbalize their feelings, I asked them to pick any word from the board that resonated with them, and discuss it with their partners.

After a few minutes, I opened the floor for a wider class discussion. I didn’t really have an agenda for this part, as I just wanted to be responsive to each class. Generally, two or three students led the discussion in each class. If there was a lull, I’d say aloud one of the words from the board, and ask if anyone wanted to respond to it. Sometimes students asked questions like, “How could this happen?” or “Why doesn’t anyone stop it?“.

The only thing I could in those instances was to be honest.

Slavery is about money. People do it because they benefit from it financially.

I don’t know how to stop it, but I want to learn more and try to do something.

Then, I asked them to journal one more time. Again, I gave them no prompt or direction, they could write whatever they wanted. They did not need to put their name on it if they wanted to stay anonymous, but I was going to collect their journals, because their thoughts and feelings were important to me.

Finally, I made a wordle of the combined student one-word responses. I think this will be useful to show later in the unit to help maintain the emotional connection to the content. It also serves as a powerful bond between the students across all of the classes.

Student Response to Modern Day Slavery

For the future, I’d like to get permission from some of the students to make a blog post of their journal responses. Also, I hope to organize interested students into conducting a awareness campaign, and possibly some sort of fundraiser event to support an anti-slavery N.G.O. Fingers crossed…


Check out student journals responses to modern day slavery!

Check out my Frederick Douglass lesson!

Check out what students thought about the lesson!


Comments and feedback welcome!