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Students will analyze a newspaper article about motherhood from a North Carolina newspaper in 1845 and compare it to descriptions of motherhood from other contemporary sources including women’s diaries and descriptions from oral testimonies of enslaved African American women. Students will also compare these antebellum descriptions to the modern debates over mothers’ roles in American society.

Learning outcomes

  • Students will develop a nuanced understanding of gender roles in antebellum America and compare and contrast the experiences of privileged white mothers to the experiences of mothers living under slavery in antebellum North Carolina.
  • Students will connect the past to the present by comparing a newspaper article from Salisbury, NC in 1845 to modern popular debates about the roles of mothers in American society.
  • Students will also gain experience analyzing primary source documents including newspapers and oral history narratives and gain experience comparing expressed ideals of behavior with historical realities.

Teacher preparation

Materials needed

  • A North Carolina history textbook
  • For What Is a Mother Responsible?Carolina Watchman, January 25, 1845. [Note: This article is one of many that will be digitized as a part of the North Carolina Newspaper Digitization Project of the North Carolina State Archives.]
  • Primary source analysis handout, based on the questions in “Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students,” by Kathy Walbert. [Note: the attached handout can be used as-is, but the author strongly recommends adapting it to meet the needs of your class. You may want to add additional questions; ask students to look for key words, topics, or concepts that are relevant to what they’re learning about; or identify specific elements of the article you would like students to engage with.]
  • Computers with internet access so students can access primary and secondary resources, either individually or in small groups. If necessary, students could work from printed versions of these materials.
  • Students should have writing materials available to take notes during discussions and group activities

Time required for lesson

Three consecutive class periods. Individual instructors may choose to devote more time, including extension activities or inviting students to consider additional sources. Instructors may also find it possible to condense this lesson into a shorter period of time if time constraints require that modification.


Students should be familiar with North Carolina history up to the antebellum period, should have been introduced to the basic history of slavery in the U.S. south and should have some understanding of the difference between social and economic classes in North Carolina in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

The following resources can help students learn to analyze primary sources like the ones used in this lesson plan. If your students have little experience with primary sources, they may want to explore some of these web-based resources and practice working with historical documents:


Day one

  1. Ask students to take out writing materials and spend 5 minutes free-writing about what they think “responsibility” means. In free-writing, students simply write, without paying attention to grammar/spelling/organization, as a way of getting their ideas down on paper. I have found that asking them to free-write can help students start to clarify their thoughts and will allow students who are often hesitant to participate in a discussion because they feel “on the spot” to join in comfortably because they’ve had a chance to think about the topic at hand briefly. For more information about free-writing and other brainstorming strategies, many of which are useful as class discussion starters as well as writing strategies, the UNC Writing Center has an excellent handout available.
  2. Open up discussion, asking students to share their ideas about responsibility. It may be useful to use a blackboard, whiteboard, overhead, or computer-based projection to write down key ideas as the discussion unfolds. As a class, try to reach a consensus definition of “responsibility” during the conversation. It may be helpful, if time permits, to ask students what a student is responsible for in a class, what a teacher is responsible for in a class, or what a parent is responsible for in a family.
  3. Explain to students that today they will be reading an article that was reprinted in the Carolina Watchman, a newspaper from Salisbury, North Carolina, on January 25, 1845. The article was originally printed in the Mother’s Journal and may have been reprinted in numerous publications around this time. Hand out copies of the article and divide students into groups of three to four members.
  4. Hand out copies of the primary source analysis handout. Have the students work together in their groups, using the questions on the handout to help them analyze the document. These questions are based on the article “Reading Primary Sources: An Introduction for Students” by Kathryn Walbert from LEARN North Carolina. You may find it very helpful to adapt this handout — or to create your own — adding any additional questions that might connect to previous or upcoming activities. One student in each group should volunteer to record the group’s thoughts on the analysis worksheet.

    As they work together, students should have their textbooks handy so that they can read about North Carolina in the 1840s during the part of their analysis that will deal with the historical context of the source. The instructor should circulate from group to group to make sure that groups are on task, determining that all group members are participating actively, and asking further questions to push students to think more critically about the source.

    In classrooms with computer access, students could compare their own analysis of this article with that of historian Kathryn Walbert, who answered the same questions about this article in the interactive web document Reading Primary Sources: News Editorials on LEARN North Carolina.

  5. After most groups have worked through the majority of the questions on the worksheet, write on the board or overhead, “According to the author of this article, for what is a mother responsible in 1845?” Verbally remind groups that they can keep working on their worksheets if they still have questions left, but that when they are done, they should each write down their own answer to this question, discussing the question with group members if they choose to help clarify their thoughts.
  6. Collect group worksheets and students’ answers to questions for use on Day Two.

Day two

  1. Ask students to return to their groups and hand out the group worksheets. Also hand back students’ individual answers to the question from the day before. Being with their group members and having their worksheets available for review may help spark discussion.

    Open a discussion of mothers’ responsibilities according to this article. Ask students:

    • For what was a mother responsible, according to this article?
    • When the author wrote this article, who was his or her intended audience?
    • Do you think the author is writing about all mothers, or does he or she have a specific group of mothers in mind?
    • Do you think that this article presents an idealized view of motherhood?
    • Do you think that most mothers’ experiences would have matched up to this idealized view?
    • Do you think that different mothers in antebellum North Carolina had different experiences? What factors might influence a mother’s experiences?
  2. Explain to students that today they will be working in groups to explore the experiences of individual mothers in North Carolina from different walks of life during the antebellum period.

    You can either allow students to remain in their original groups or to “regroup” for this activity — you can even let the class vote about whether they would like to stay with their current groups or mix things up if you like. Divide students into either pairs or groups of three or four and assign each group to a different primary source. You can also decide whether you will use printed copies of the resources or invite students to work online at computers. Some of these sources are lengthy and you may want to preview them and select specific pages or passages for students to analyze.

    If you think your students could use some more practice analyzing primary sources, you could create another worksheet based on the LEARN NC primary sources article and ask students to work through those questions as well as questions about motherhood. Or if you think your students have a good grasp of the process for analyzing a new primary source already, you could ask students to focus on the idea of motherhood in the sources. Here are some ideas for questions that could get your students thinking critically about motherhood in these sources:

    • In the printed copy of your source, highlight any sections that deal with motherhood. (The instructor could also do this ahead of time, or only ask students to read and respond to specific relevant passages.)
    • Tell me about the mother described by your source. How old was she? How many children did she have? Was she enslaved or free? What was her family’s economic status? What kind of work did she do each day, and was it work for pay, work for her own household, or unpaid work for someone else (as in the case of enslaved people)?
    • Describe a typical day in the life of this mother. Include a description of her home, meals, and other relevant details.
    • Describe this mother’s interactions with her children. Describe her interactions with other family members (her husband, any other adults in the household).
    • How do you think this mother thought about motherhood? What values did she try to instill in her children and what kinds of things did she do to try to be a good mother to them? What evidence from the source leads you to these conclusions?
    • How does this mother’s experience match up with or differ from the responsibilities in the article we read yesterday?

    Use the following primary sources for this activity:

    • Slave Narratives:
      • Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938

        The following narratives deal specifically with enslaved mothers in North Carolina, but there are 218 North Carolina narratives and most of them address issues of family and daily life. You may search by location to find North Carolina narratives and then read through the narratives to find additional examples if you want to branch out further:

        • Rachel Fairley interview — she was born in Sardis, Mississippi in 1863, but describes her parents’ experience of enslavement both in Mississippi and in Charlottesville, NC.
        • Annie Stephenson describes her childhood as a slave in North Carolina.
        • Rena Raines describes the harsh treatment and hard work that her mother endured as a slave in North Carolina.

        Please note: You may want to prepare your students for the language and dialect of these narratives. In many cases, the narratives use language that is offensive to modern readers and historians generally agree that the transcriptions of these interviews is uneven and influenced by the expectations of the interviewers and transcribers who were usually white. In the 1930s, when these narratives were recorded, stereotypes and prejudice may well have influenced some of the ways in which former slaves’ recollections were written down. For more information, see “A Note on the Language of the Narratives.” You may also find it helpful to read through the ideas in the lesson plan “Mountain Dialect: Reading Between the Spoken Lines” by Kathryn Walbert for more information about preparing students to read sources that may caricature or misrepresent the speech of others.

    • Recollections of white women from the antebellum and Civil War periods:
    • One group should consider the following older but still useful secondary source. You may need to adapt the handout for this group, allowing them to generalize about women’s experiences as mothers in antebellum North Carolina, using Johnson’s research as a guide.
  3. To conclude the day, ask each group to share their reflections on the source that they read. It may take some time to have each group briefly describe the source that they encountered and the ideas about motherhood within it, so be sure to leave at least 3 to 5 minutes per group for this activity.
  4. Collect worksheets for the following day’s discussion. Students could be given the text of the documents they did not read in their own group as supplemental reading or homework if the instructor would like each student to have exposure to all of the primary sources.

Day three

  1. Invite students to return to their groups from day two and hand out their worksheets to help refresh their memories. Remind students of their earlier discussions of the article from the Carolina Watchman and ask them to compare the responsibilities detailed in the article to the lives of the women that they read about on day two. Do they think that the mothers they read about would agree with the article? Would they find it possible to do all of the things that the article asked? In other words, did the article present a realistic model for all mothers or an idealized one?

    It may be helpful to remind students that being unable to live up to an unrealistic ideal does not necessarily make someone a “bad” mother — as they probably saw in their readings, many women living under very trying circumstances provided for their children, loved them, and prepared them well for adulthood even when they had few resources and little time to spend with their own sons and daughters. Given the choice, many of these women would certainly have preferred to have more flexibility and more resources to enable them to do all that they would like to have done for their children, but the lack of that flexibility and those resources in no way discredits them as mothers. Students may be able to think of other examples of a very idealistic standard that is difficult for all people to attain and remember that someone’s inability to live up to all parts of that standard does not necessarily reflect badly on them. Voltaire’s famous quotation from 1764 that “the best is the enemy of the good” may be worth discussing in this context.

  2. Ask students if they think that our society still idealizes motherhood or puts pressure on mothers to be perfect. Ask them for examples of the pressures mothers face, and also ask whether they think that our society places similar pressures on fathers.
  3. Invite students to work in pairs to look up recent articles about motherhood on reliable news sites like the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, or other well-known media outlets. They may wish to search for terms like “mommy wars,” “working mothers,” or “stay-at-home moms” to find a few articles (two to five depending on time available) that discuss the expectations for mothers in modern American society. Ask students to copy and paste the URL for each article into a Word document and write a one-paragraph summary of each article. If students have selected an even number of articles, each student in the pair could write up their summary of half of the articles. Students should print out their summaries. Pairs that finish early could read additional articles or work on other class activities.
  4. When all pairs have printed out their summaries, the class should regroup for discussion. Invite students to talk about the following:
    • What pressures and expectations did they notice being placed on mothers today? Are those same pressures and expectations a part of fathers’ lives too? (If so, are fathers pressured to the same extent as mothers?)
    • What are “the Mommy wars”? Do you think that the differences in women’s views of motherhood have anything to do with their own personal circumstances and the options that are available to them?
    • How do these modern views on motherhood compare and contrast with the views in “For What Is a Mother Responsible?” from 1845? How do the different experiences of modern mothers compare to the different experiences of mothers in the nineteenth century?
  5. For their final assessment, students will write a letter to the editor of the Carolina Watchman of 1845 responding to the article about mothers’ responsibilities. They will write from one of the following perspectives:
    • A white mother who is the wife of a wealthy slave holder
    • A mother (white or free African American) who is the wife of a subsistence farmer whose family owns no slaves and is living on the economic margins (While many poor farmers did not read or write in this period, for the purposes of this activity, we will ignore that historical reality.)
    • An African American mother who is enslaved and lives on a large plantation (While most enslaved people would have been forbidden to read and write and had no access to newspapers, for the purposes of this activity, we will ignore that historical reality.)
    • A modern mother who is writing “back in time” to explain how times (and ideas about motherhood!) have changed and/or not changed since the article was written — students choosing this option should feel free to discuss their ideas with their own mother or other mothers that they know before writing their letter

    Give students these additional instructions:

    In each case, be sure to include at least one paragraph in which you describe a day in your life as a mother in your particular circumstances. Please also discuss whether or not you agree with the responsibilities listed in the article and whether or not you feel that the article presents a realistic set of expectations for women in your circumstances. What kinds of additional articles would a mother in your circumstances like to see in the newspaper in the future?


Assessment will be based on the student’s body of work from throughout the lesson, taking into account students’ participation in class free-writing and discussions, contributions to group-based activities, analysis of primary sources, and final written project. Teachers can determine how much to weight each part of the lesson and what specific rubric to use based on their own priorities and classroom practices. The following questions will help you think about how to assess students’ work for various parts of the lesson.


  • Freewriting shouldn’t be graded on grammar, spelling, organization or content. Rather, students should be evaluated on whether they seem to have engaged with the task at hand and tried to use the time to productively generate and record their ideas in written form.

Discussions & Classroom Activities

  • Did students contribute frequently and thoughtfully to class discussion?
  • When group work was a part of the lesson, did students cooperate and do their fair share of the work?
  • If you wish, you can incorporate a peer-review or self-assessment to allow students to comment on the contributions of group members or on their own contributions to group work and class discussion.

Primary Source Analysis (newspaper article, additional historical sources, modern newspaper article)

  • Did students identify significant information about this source and its origins?
  • Did students place this source in an accurate historical context?
  • Did students summarize the content of this source thoughtfully?
  • Did students draw reasonable conclusions when analyzing this source?
  • Did students evaluate the source thoughtfully?
  • Did students write down their observations carefully and in detail for later analysis?

Final Written Assignment

  • Did the student present a full and accurate description of the historical circumstances and perspective of the person he or she chose to portray?
  • Is the information in the student’s letter to the editor accurate?
  • Did the student present his or her letter writer’s views on the newspaper article from 1845 persuasively, supporting the key points of his or her argument with appropriate historical evidence?
  • Did the letter propose additional newspaper coverage of motherhood that seems authentic to the perspective from which the student chose to write the letter?
  • Is the student’s letter well-organized and clearly written? Is it free of the kinds of errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting that might distract or confuse a reader?

Critical vocabulary

There are a number of terms used in this nineteenth century source that may be unfamiliar to students. Definitions to these terms are available in the glossary. Teachers interested in using this resource to build vocabulary could also invite students to look up unfamiliar terms in the dictionary, create their own glossaries, or summarize passages in their own words to enhance comprehension.

Critical terms could include:

  • subordination
  • sceptre
  • dominion
  • nursing
  • rearing
  • progeny
  • sustenance
  • deformed
  • bloated
  • meagre
  • maternal
  • negligence
  • propriety
  • deficient
  • disregard
  • deportment
  • cringing
  • impertinent
  • ingenious
  • deceitful
  • clownish
  • repress
  • imbued
  • sentiments
  • virtue
  • temperance
  • industry
  • benevolence
  • contrary
  • vice
  • covetousness
  • devolved
  • eradicating
  • odious
  • amaranth
  • emblem
  • disposition
  • constitutionally
  • regulation
  • acquirement
  • portals
  • reverence
  • ordinance

Students will need to define responsibility as part of the activities for this lesson.


Supplemental information

  • Common Core State Standards
    • English Language Arts (2010)
      • Writing

        • Grades 6-8
          • 6-8.W.2 Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes. 6-8.W.2.1 Introduce a topic clearly, previewing what is to follow; organize ideas, concepts, and information...

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Social Studies (2010)
      • American Humanities

        • 12.C.5 Understand how conflict and consensus influences American culture. 12.C.5.1 Analyze the relationship between conflict and consensus in American literature, philosophy, and the arts. 12.C.5.2 Explain the impact of American slavery on American culture....
      • Grade 8

        • 8.H.1 Apply historical thinking to understand the creation and development of North Carolina and the United States. 8.H.1.1 Construct charts, graphs, and historical narratives to explain particular events or issues. 8.H.1.2 Summarize the literal meaning of...
        • 8.H.3 Understand the factors that contribute to change and continuity in North Carolina and the United States. 8.H.3.1 Explain how migration and immigration contributed to the development of North Carolina and the United States from colonization to contemporary...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Social Studies (2003)

Grade 8

  • Goal 3: The learner will identify key events and evaluate the impact of reform and expansion in North Carolina during the first half of the 19th century.
    • Objective 3.04: Describe the development of the institution of slavery in the State and nation, and assess its impact on the economic, social, and political conditions.