K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

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Related pages

  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Excerpt from the book by Harriet Jacobs, describing her master's attempts to exploit her sexually and her mistress' response to the situation. Includes historical commentary.
  • Interview with Lila Nichols: Federal Writers Project interview with former slave Lila Nichols. Includes historical commentary.
  • Plantation life in the 1840s: A slave's description: This lesson introduces students to a description of life on the plantation and the cultivation of cotton from the perspective of a slave. It focuses on the use of slave narratives made available by the Documenting the American South collection.

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In this lesson, students will read selected excerpts from slave narratives, determining common characteristics of the genre. Students will then write their own slave narratives as a slave from their region of North Carolina, researching for historical accuracy and incorporating elements of the slave narrative genre to demonstrate understanding.

Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • be introduced to slave narratives, an influential genre in American literature.
  • analyze and recognize the characteristics of slave narratives.
  • gain a better understanding of slavery in North Carolina.

Teacher planning

Materials needed

Time required for lesson

Four or five days


Teachers should read over the slave narrative excerpts, and choose any other relevant excerpts they would like their students to read from the full narratives at Documenting the American South (available below in “Websites.”) Teachers may also want to collaborate with the library media specialist for the research portion of the lesson to identify print and online resources about slavery in North Carolina for students to use.

Note: The slave narrative excerpts have been selected for grade-level appropriateness, but they do discuss topics like violent punishment of slaves, separation of families, and the physical and psychological hardships of slavery. However, they avoid the most shocking themes of the slave narratives, such as extreme violence and sexual abuse. Links to the full-length narratives, available on the Documenting the American South website, are provided below. If students choose to read further in the online slave narratives, teachers may wish to lead an additional discussion on some of the difficult themes they may encounter, such as violence, sexual abuse, and use of racist language, before students read the narratives.


  1. Introduce the concept of slave narratives to the class. Have any students read slave narratives before? If told they were going to read a slave narrative, what would they expect?
  2. Explain that students are going to do some literary detective work. Project the title pages of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) for the class to examine. What can students determine about what’s inside the narratives, just from their title pages?
    • Discussion Questions:
      • Students may notice the phrase “Written By Him/Herself”; why would an author want to make this fact prominent on the title page?
      • Note that both narratives were published in Boston. Why do students think the narratives were published there?
      • Douglass’ narrative was published by the Anti-Slavery Office. For what purpose would this office publish and distribute Douglass’ text?
  3. Have students read the brief biographies of Jacobs and Douglass from Documenting the American South: Then have students read the excerpts from Douglass’ and Jacobs’ narratives:
  4. As they read, have them take notes on any common characteristics between the two texts.
  5. As a class, discuss features students believe are common to the slave narrative genre. Some responses might be:
    • prefaces or appendices by prominent white people to confirm the reliability and good character of the narrator
    • evidence of the horrors of slavery such as stories of abuse and deprivation
    • a quest for literacy
    • resolving a personal crisis
    • faith, whether religious faith or faith in freedom and self
    • the hypocrisy of religious slave holders
    • a journey from slavery to freedom and from the South to the North.
  6. Explain that students will write their own slave narratives as a narrator escaping from slavery in North Carolina. In preparation, students should research slavery in the South, particularly in their region of the state.
    • What sorts of work did slaves in North Carolina perform?
    • Where did they typically live?
    • What was daily life like for a North Carolina slave?
  7. Encourage students to include details from their research in their slave narratives. Each slave narrative should also contain at least three to four characteristics of the slave narrative genre.
  8. Provide time for students to write their narratives, or assign them as homework.


Students will write a brief slave narrative, describing the story of a slave from North Carolina. Teachers should evaluate how many characteristics of slave narratives the student has included, as well as the student’s success in integrating research information about slavery in North Carolina.

Extended activities

To extend this lesson, students may read the entire Jacobs and Douglass slave narratives, or may choose to read excerpts from other slave narratives available in the North American Slave Narratives collection from Documenting the American South. Teachers may want to lead an additional discussion on some of the difficult themes in the slave narratives, such as violence, sexual abuse, and racial prejudice, before or while students read the narratives.

For students in upper grades, this unit can be connected with a unit on neo-slave narratives, such as Margaret Walker’s Jubilee, Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved.


Supplemental information

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

        • Grades 9-10
          • 9-10.LH.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

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

        • 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...
        • USH.H.4 Analyze how conflict and compromise have shaped politics, economics and culture in the United States. USH.H.4.1 Analyze the political issues and conflicts that impacted the United States through Reconstruction and the compromises that resulted (e.g.,...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

English Language Arts (2004)

Grade 9

  • Goal 5: The learner will demonstrate understanding of various literary genres, concepts, elements, and terms.
    • Objective 5.01: Read and analyze various literary works by:
      • using effective reading strategies for preparation, engagement, reflection.
      • recognizing and analyzing the characteristics of literary genres, including fiction (e.g., myths, legends, short stories, novels), non-fiction (e.g., essays, biographies, autobiographies, historical documents), poetry (e.g., epics, sonnets, lyric poetry, ballads) and drama (e.g., tragedy, comedy).
      • interpreting literary devices such as allusion, symbolism, figurative language, flashback, dramatic irony, dialogue, diction, and imagery.
      • understanding the importance of tone, mood, diction, and style.
      • explaining and interpreting archetypal characters, themes, settings.
      • explaining how point of view is developed and its effect on literary texts.
      • determining a character's traits from his/her actions, speech, appearance, or what others say about him or her.
      • explaining how the writer creates character, setting, motif, theme, and other elements.
      • making thematic connections among literary texts and media and contemporary issues.
      • understanding the importance of cultural and historical impact on literary texts.
      • producing creative responses that follow the conventions of a specific genre and using appropriate literary devices for that genre.

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 9

  • Goal 1: Historical Tools and Practices - The learner will identify, evaluate, and use the methods and tools valued by historians, compare the views of historians, and trace the themes of history.
    • Objective 1.02: Analyze and interpret primary and secondary sources to compare views, trace themes, and detect bias.