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Students will read and analyze personal narratives written by two North Carolinians: Mary Norcott Bryan and William Henry Singleton. The authors’ lives share many parallels; both were born and grew up on plantations in New Bern during the 1830s and 1840s, both experienced the hardships of the Civil War, and both wrote their recollections in the early 20th century, looking back on their lives in North Carolina. However, Bryan was the white daughter of a wealthy slaveholder, while Singleton was a black man, born into slavery, who served in the Union Army. How do their stories differ? Students will evaluate the audience and purpose of each text, compare the authors’ opinions about slavery, and analyze how each author’s cultural background influences the texts.

Learning outcomes

  • Students will compare two contemporary personal narratives written by North Carolinians.
  • Students will analyze how an author’s values, cultural background, and social experiences influence a text.

Teacher planning

Materials needed

Time required for lesson

Two to three hours


  1. Explain that students will be reading and analyzing two personal narratives written by North Carolinians. Mary Norcott Bryan’s narrative is written in an epistolary style, as if she is writing letters to her children about her picturesque childhood at Woodlawn Plantation and her experiences during and after the Civil War. William Henry Singleton’s narrative relates his childhood and young adulthood spent in slavery, his experiences as a Union soldier during the war, and his life after Emancipation.
  2. Have students read the narratives online. After they’ve had time to read both, review these questions for comprehension, either during a class discussion or as written homework:
    1. Who seems to be the audience for each narrative?
    2. What do you think is each author’s purpose for writing the narrative?
    3. What were some of Bryan’s and Singleton’s important childhood experiences?
    4. How does each author depict the relationship between slaves and slaveholders?
    5. Reread the passages where each author writes about the abolition of slavery (Bryan, p. 27, 2nd paragraph; Singleton, p. 9, 1st paragraph). How does Bryan’s “night of horror” compare to Singleton’s description of Emancipation?
    6. How did the events of the Civil War and Emancipation change each narrator’s life?
  3. After students have read and discussed both narratives, have them write a response exploring how each author’s cultural background affects the text. Questions to consider:
    1. How have Bryan’s and Singleton’s values and experiences influenced how they chose to tell their stories?
    2. How does each author feel about North Carolina’s antebellum society, and where can you see that reflected in the narratives?
    3. Can you find any common themes in the two narratives? Ask students to use examples from the texts to illustrate their responses.


Students should analyze the narratives based on each author’s cultural background, citing ways in which their social experiences and values have influenced the texts. To successfully complete the response, students should also cite examples from the narratives to illustrate their points.

Supplemental information

  • Common Core State Standards
    • English Language Arts (2010)
      • History/Social Studies

        • Grades 11-12
          • 11-12.LH.6 Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
        • Grades 9-10
          • 9-10.LH.6 Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
      • Reading: Informational Text

        • Grade 11-12
          • 11-12.RIT.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
        • Grade 9-10
          • 9-10.RIT.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • United States History II

        • USH.H.1 Apply the four interconnected dimensions of historical thinking to the United States History Essential Standards in order to understand the creation and development of the United States over time. USH.H.1.1 Use Chronological thinking to: Identify the...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

English Language Arts (2004)

Grade 11

  • Goal 1: The learner will demonstrate increasing insight and reflection to print and non-print text through personal expression.
    • Objective 1.02: Reflect and respond expressively to texts so that the audience will:
      - discover multiple perspectives.
      - investigate connections between life and literature.
      - explore how the student's life experiences influence his or her response to the selection.
      - recognize how the responses of others may be different.
      - articulate insightful connections between life and literature.
      -consider cultural or historical significance.