Powerful Stories—Slavery in America | EL Education Curriculum

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ELA 2012 G7:M3:U1

Powerful Stories—Slavery in America

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In this unit, students are introduced to the topic, guiding questions, and central text of the module: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (excerpts only). By the end of the unit, they will understand the historical context of this text as well as the tools and processes they will use as they read and analyze it. Their analysis will focus on Douglass's purpose and how he tells his story in order to accomplish it. In the beginning of the unit, students listen to and discuss The People Could Fly (a picture book by Virginia Hamilton). This book introduces the topic of slavery as well as one of the module's guiding questions: What gives stories and poems their enduring power? The next set of lessons introduces the central text and its context. Through reading informational texts and working with images, students build their understanding of slavery, the life of Frederick Douglass, and the debate over slavery in which his voice was so significant. In these lessons, students focus on analyzing texts and supporting their analysis with textual evidence (RI.7.1).

After a pause to launch independent reading for the module, students begin their work with the Narrative. As they read excerpts from the first two chapters, students consider Douglass's purposes, practice the routines they will use for reading this text, and notice what gives this story its power. The unit closes with a set of lessons on poetry. Students read poems that deepen their understanding of slavery, and build their ability to recognize and interpret figurative language--skills that will be critical as they continue their reading of Douglass. The End of Unit 1 Assessment focuses on students' ability to analyze how structures, word choice, and figurative language contribute to a poem's meaning.


Big Ideas & Guiding Questions

  • What gives stories and poems their enduring power?
  • How did Douglass's purpose and audience shape how he told his story?
  • Stories and poems have enduring power because they tell about important or interesting events, people, and places; they have themes that help readers understand the world and often empower people; and they use powerful language and powerful images.
  • Douglass wrote the Narrative to convince his audience that slavery should be abolished. Through telling the story of his life, he responded to the reasons that some people gave to justify slavery, and showed why they were mistaken.

Content Connections

This module is designed to address English Language Arts standards as students read literature and informational text related to slavery and Frederick Douglass. However, the module intentionally incorporates Social Studies practices and themes to support potential interdisciplinary connections to this compelling content.

These intentional connections are described below.

Big ideas and guiding questions are informed by the New York State Common Core K-8 Social Studies Framework:


Social Studies Practices, Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence, Grades 5-8

  • Define and frame questions about events and the world in which we live and use evidence to answer these questions. 
  • Identify, describe, and evaluate evidence about events from diverse sources (including written documents, works of art, photographs, charts and graphs, artifacts, oral traditions, and other primary and secondary sources).
  • Analyze evidence in terms of content, authorship, point of view, purpose, and format; identify bias; explain the role of bias and audience in presenting arguments or evidence.
  • Describe and analyze arguments of others.
  • Create meaningful and persuasive understandings of the past by fusing disparate and relevant evidence from primary and secondary sources.

Social Studies Key Ideas and Conceptual Understandings, Grade 7

  • 7.2e Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, slavery grew in the colonies. Enslaved Africans utilized a variety of strategies to both survive and resist their conditions.
  • 7.7b Enslaved African Americans resisted slavery in various ways. The abolitionist movement also worked to raise awareness and generate resistance to the institution of slavery.


Each unit is made up of a sequence of between 5-20 lessons. The “unit at a glance” chart in the curriculum map breaks down each unit into its lessons, to show how the curriculum is organized in terms of standards address, supporting targets, ongoing assessment, and protocols. It also indicates which lessons include the mid-unit and end-of-unit assessments.

Texts and Resources to Buy

Texts that need to be procured. Please download the Trade Book List for procurement guidance.

Text or Resource Quantity ISBNs
The People Could Fly: The Picture Book
by Virginia Hamilton
Teacher copy only
ISBN: 978-0553507805, 055350780X
Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of Slavery
by William Miller
Teacher copy only
ISBN: 978-1880000427, 1880000423
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
by Frederick Douglass

Optional: Community, Experts, Fieldwork, Service, and Extensions

Ask a local poet to visit your class and share his or her work, as well as the process he/she uses to write poetry.


  • Consider visiting a museum that has an exhibit about the history of your community during the years leading up to, during, and after the Civil War. Ask students to consider how people living in their community in 1845 might have responded to Douglass's book.
  • The PBS website for Freedom: A History of US has many other resources in addition to the text that students read, including many primary sources related to slavery and Douglass. Consider using these resources or others to craft a virtual fieldwork experience for your students to further build their background knowledge about slavery and abolition. The resources that accompany Episode 5 can be found at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/historyofus/web05/index.html.

Optional: Extensions

  • Partner with the social studies teacher to support students in an in-depth exploration of a related topic, such as other abolitionists, the Civil War, or Reconstruction.
  • Consider a study of slavery in the modern world.
  • Frederick Douglass had a long, full life, and this module focuses on only the first part of his life. A full study of his accomplishments would add to students' understanding of the fight for women's rights, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Haitian Revolution. Consider having students learn more about Douglass's life after he wrote the Narrative.

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