Slavery and the Making of AmericaPicture of slave women cultivating a village garden in Central Africa, Courtesy of the University of Virginia Library
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

K-12 Learning
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Lesson Plans
Elementary Middle School High School
Knowledge is Power Overview Procedures for Teachers Organizers for Students
by Thomas Thurston

In this lesson students will examine "knowledge" and the slave community: what constitutes "knowledge," how it is gained, and how it is passed on to others. Prior to viewing selected episodes from the documentary series, SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, students will discuss the difference between "education" and "knowledge," giving examples from each category based on their own experiences. Students will then view the documentary series and discuss the various types of "knowing," including skills and work-related knowledge, literacy, knowledge of the land, and human relations. Students will study selected online documents that touch on different aspects of knowledge possessed by slaves. For a culminating activity, students will construct a game show in which contestants will be queried on different topics related to slavery in America.

This lesson can be used as a pre- or post- viewing activity for the PBS series SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, or as an independent lesson for the social studies/history classroom. A basic knowledge of the subject of slavery in the United States is recommended.

Grade Level: 9-12

Time Allotment: Four 45-minute class periods

Subject Matter: History, Social Studies

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:
  • explain the distinct forms of knowledge that enslaved Africans brought with them to America or developed while enslaved.

  • understand the role that religious and political movements of the 18th century had on the development of abolitionist thinking.

  • understand that rhetorical arguments that slaves or free African Americans employed to argue against slavery.
From the National Standards for History for grades 5-12, available online at

Historical Thinking: Standard 3B - The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation. Therefore, the student is able to analyze cause-and-effect relationships bearing in mind multiple causation including (a) the importance of the individual in history; (b) the influence of ideas, human interests, and beliefs; and (c) the role of chance, the accidental and the irrational.

Historical Thinking: Standard 3C - The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation. Therefore, the student is able to analyze political, ideological, religious, and economic origins of the Revolution.

United States History: Standard 1A - The student understands the causes of the American Revolution. Therefore, the student is able to explain the major ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence and their intellectual origins.

United States History: Standard 1B - The student understands the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Therefore, the student is able to demonstrate the fundamental contradictions between the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the realities of chattel slavery.

Prep for Teachers:

Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom, or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as Preview all of the Web sites listed below and video clips used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students. CUE the tape of SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, Episode 1, "The Downward Spiral" 34 MINUTES into Episode 1. CUE the tape of SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA to the beginning of Episode 2, "Freedom is in the Air." Print out and copy the student organizers and document sheet.

Media Components:

  • SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, Episode 1, "The Downward Spiral" and Episode 2, "Freedom is in the Air."
For the class:
  • TV/VCR
For each student:
Copies of the following student organizers: Online Resource

"David Walker's Appeal" (excerpts)
Excerpts from "David Walker's Appeal" (1829), from the AFRICANS IN AMERICA Web site.

About the Author:
Thomas Thurston is the Director of Education for the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. Prior to his current position he worked at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he was project director for the award-winning Web site, the New Deal Network. He has served as an educational consultant for several previous PBS historical documentaries, including THE RISE AND FALL OF JIM CROW and BERGA: SOLDIERS OF ANOTHER WAR.
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