Reliving History Through Slave Narratives

Students will conduct research on slavery in the United States and then write a story which they will present in a dramatic fashion.


Key Staff

Social studies or language arts teachers with the opportunity to collaborate with the drama teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Performance Skills and Techniques
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Creative Thinking: Communication and Collaboration


After reading narratives from former slaves that were recorded in the 1930's as part of the Federal Writers' Project, students conduct research on slavery and tell a story based on their findings. The lesson incorporates an exploration of storytelling techniques.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Analyze how the senses can evoke strong images
  • Explain the impact slavery had on African-Americans in the United States
  • Dramatize a story based on historic events
  • Demonstrate how to use facial expressions, gestures, and voice to express emotions
  • Combine storytelling techniques when they tell a story

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Research
  • Information Organization
  • Discussion
  • Cooperative Learning

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Internet Access
  • Speakers
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should have a solid understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras as well as familiarity with the Federal Writers’ Project. Teachers should also be knowledgeable about storytelling and narratives.

Prior Student Knowledge

  • Knowledge of Civil War history
  • Understanding of slavery
  • Understanding of prejudice, discrimination and segregation

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab


  • Small Group Instruction
  • Large Group Instruction
  • Individualized Instruction


  • Test internet connection
  • Make necessary photocopies

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.

Build Knowledge


1. Discuss with your students how we often depend on visual descriptions when telling a story and that it's important to remember that evoking a person’s sense of taste, touch, smell, and sound can also be a very powerful tool in storytelling.

2. To illustrate the point, begin reading some of the items below to the class. As you read the descriptions, stop and discuss how your tone differs while reading each of the following descriptions:

  • A pizza baking in the oven
  • An injured animal
  • The first snowflake of the year falling on your face
  • Diving into a pool on a hot summer day
  • Stepping out of bed onto a cold floor
  • The school bell ringing at the end of a long day
  • The sound of your parent's voice when he or she found out you did something wrong
  • Cotton candy at a carnival
  • The taste of sour pickles

3. Divide the class into small groups and spend a few minutes generating a list of one-sentence descriptions that appeal to the five senses. Have students record their work on the Appealing to the Five Senses Worksheet located within the Resource Carousel. Ask students to include at least one description for each of the five senses. Have the groups share their lists with the class. Remind students to use expressions when they share their sentences with the class.

4. After each group has finished, ask the students if they had any "That reminds me of the time..." thoughts when the sentences were being read. Discuss how it is easy to identify with an image that contains a description that appeals to our senses.

Build Knowledge

1. Select one of the slave narratives from the following sites to share with the students:

2. Divide the class into small groups and have them read or listen to different slave narratives. Using the Slave Narrative Sensory Worksheet located within the Resource Carousel, ask students to write a sentence or two about the person or an event that happened in the narrative under each category.

3. After each group has finished reading a slave narrative, ask each group to share with the rest of the class the slave narrative they read. Have students tell the story from the point of view of the person in the narrative. Point out ways students can tell the stories with more expression.

4. Involve the class in a discussion of the differences between learning about a time period from accounts of people who lived through the experience or from another primary source and learning from reading about the topic in a history book (a secondary source).


1. Divide the class into small groups and ask them to select one of the following topics to research:

  • Plantation life
  • Traditions
  • The Underground Railroad
  • Life after emancipation

Library of Congress: African American Odyssey provides information, photographs, graphics and audio clips on the topic of slavery.

2. Ask students to record a brief summary of the information, as well as the source of the information, as they conduct their research. Tell students that they are going to create a story based on their research topic.

3. Explain to students that each group member will tell the story from the viewpoint of a different person involved in the story. For example, students researching the Underground Railroad could tell the story from the point of view of an escaping slave, a person who helps them during their journey, a family member left behind and a bounty hunter who is looking for the escaped slave.

4. Using the Narrative Planning Worksheet located within the Resource Carousel, have students record information about the individual they are researching. Students may respond to these prompts to help develop their characters. Discuss the fact that not all of their thoughts or information about the character will be brought out in the story, but that the process of developing specific characteristics and qualities about the character will help them to create an interesting character.

  • Name
  • Age
  • Physical description
  • Description of person's life
  • Personal history
  • Details of everyday life
  • Hopes and dreams
  • Greatest fear
  • Attitude

5. Have students use a graphic organizer to help them develop their stories. ReadWriteThink offers a Story Mapping Interactive that includes character, confict, resolution and setting organizers. Have students complete one or more of these organizers to develop their characters and plot lines. Students should print a copy of the completed organizer(s) for future reference. A variety of additional organizers students may use to help organize their story can be found on the NCREL Web site.


1. After students have outlined their stories, discuss how stories aren't memorized, but instead tend to change a little with every telling. Discuss how they can use visualization techniques to help them remember their story. Tell students that they might try breaking the story into scenes in their mind, noting different sensory observations in each scene. Remind students that they are the tellers of the story, even though they are telling the story from the perspective of another character.

2. Show students a video clip of storyteller Kuniko Yamamoto telling the story of her grandmother. Discuss how Kuniko switches between herself and the character of her grandmother.

3. After the groups have had a chance to practice, have the groups perform their stories one at a time. After each group finishes its performance, provide time for students to ask questions about the topic. The following is a list of possible questions to use after each performance:

  • What was the most surprising thing you learned from the performance?
  • What do you still want to learn about this topic?
  • How does learning history through a storytelling performance compare to reading about the topic in a history book?


Assess student performance using the associated Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.

Extend the Learning

Slaves often created dances from the everyday events in their lives such as rocking a baby, picking cotton, or baking a cake. Have students create a dance to tell the story that they created in Activity Three. (See the PBS: Free to Dance site for a synopsis of a dance performance that portrays African slaves.)

Stories about slavery were often told through music. Listen to a traditional slave song like "Before I'll Be Beaten" by Joe McDonald on the PBS: Ken Burn's Jazz, and have students search for traditional slave songs on the Internet.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

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