"Lifting the Veil" with Historical Narratives

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SWBAT analyze Olaudah Equiano's autobiography to determine author's purpose, effectiveness, and vocabulary use while recognizing the power of narratives to impact change.

Big Idea

How are pink slime, iPads, and slavery related? Simple. They were all brought to light by some compelling narratives which elicited change!

Lesson Overview

During the last class period, students finished up the close reading of the "A Homemade Education" excerpt from Malcolm X.  In today's opener, students will complete a "Team Member Evaluation Form" for each member of their group, including themselves, which will be used as a formative evaluation to improve group efficiency.  I have looked at their group collaborative organizers, and they really did a wonderful job of thinking while reading.  It's my goal to have students logging their ideas to interact with the text so that they can eventually begin to scaffold away from logging and just begin reading critically "without the training wheels."  I modeled this skill, we practiced it as a whole class, students worked in groups to analyze text, and now I want to go back and work through another text example together to reteach some of the skills I have noticed are weaker, like evaluating the author's word choice, considering how the structure contributes to the text's effectiveness, and determining the credibility of the author's account.  Today we are going to put those skills to the test by reviewing a biography of Olaudah Equiano and analyzing an excerpt from Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative.  I chose "A Homemade Education" to teach as a partner text with Equiano's work because to me they have many parallels.  Both focus on telling the story that, until they did so, wasn't told to the mainstream population.  Both use a passionate narrative and strong language to connect to the reader, eliciting a call to action without ever verbally commanding the reader to take action!  Both also skillfully use complex language and syntax throughout the passage.  On a more content-based note, both of these works are written by empowered, yet socially marginalized authors who use their own exceptional sense of literacy and self to build a platform for change, then convince the reader to join in on the journey.  One of the components I notice a major class weakness in is with being able to relate one text to another, which is required by the Common Core.  Many of my students consider themselves non-readers, so outside of trying to encourage more pleasure reading, I also make a point to explicitly relate texts across all genres and time periods wherever possible.  Modeling this habit could help my students integrate it more into their way of thinking.  Today the class will work on analyzing the Equiano text as a whole group before diving into individual practice analyzing another colonial work, an excerpt from John Smith's "General History of Virginia." 


20 minutes

Bell Work:  Last class period, students completed their "Malcolm X" reading log collaborative project, so I want to make sure that this hour they have time to reflect on their own contributions to the project and evaluate the contributions of their peers.  Building collaborative skills and careful, planned group interaction is key to the Speaking and Listening skills of the Common Core, so I will build activities throughout the year to explicitly work on this skill.  In order to collect this evaluation material in an easily-viewed, savable, and transferable way, I chose to create a form through Google Forms, called "Team Member Evaluation Form". to streamline this process.  Once students submit their forms, feedback collects in a giant "response" sheet.  I will view this feedback, sort it by student being evaluated, then copy-paste comments in each student's "Group Feedback Spreadsheet" (which lives in their shared Google Drive folder) so students can keep a log of their group interactions and feedback and receive feedback in a way that is largely anonymous.  This also allows me to monitor the quality of student feedback and redirect students as needed.  Furthermore, this tracking helps me to head-off any large group issues by connecting specifically with that "problem group" to discuss the complaints and mediate any issues.   As this activity will be completely new to my students, this evaluation will be completely formative, and students will all be encouraged to be entirely open and honest with group members to communicate how they have done with achieving group goals and interacting within the context of the group.  Some students may question why they have to submit a form on themselves, but I will emphasize the value of self-reflection to meeting goals, both personal and academic.

Once students have completed their evaluations, we will transition from the Malcolm X activity to the pre-teaching of the excerpt of Equiano's autobiography.  To inform this discussion (and allow for any students who lag behind their peers' pace filling out evaluation forms), students will begin reading the "Introduction," "Early Live & Enslavement," and "Release" sections of the Olaudah Equiano Wikipedia entry.  When students have had ample time to complete evaluations and get a start on reading, students will be asked to discuss (for about 5 minutes) this information using the following series of question prompts:

  • Do you think Equiano's capture, life as a slave, and release sound the same as other slaves' stories?  Explain using evidence from his biography and what you know about slavery.  (Students should be able to point out that his life seems different because he traveled "extensively," was sent to school while enslaved, managed his master's money as well as his own, and bought himself out of slavery in 10 years.  They can draw parallels because he took the Middle Passage voyage, was mistreated, was sent to war but received no monetary reward, and had to buy himself out of slavery.)
  • What do Malcolm X and Equiano have in common?  (Students will probably say that they were marginalized by society, want to change injustices in the world, write to make change happen, found freedom in knowledge, and more.)

Building Knowledge

50 minutes

Pre-Reading Activities (30 minutes)

Once a firm comparison has been drawn between the Malcolm X and Equiano texts, I want to give students some background into what the slave trade looked like.  Most of my students are very visual learners, so I will show them "Slave Captains" and "Slave Ships" clips from The Discovery Channel. Just last week we had a lock down drill, which requires that students in my classroom (all 33 of them!) smash themselves into one corner of my room.  Students absolutely hate these drills (and really, all drills that require them to be crammed together), so I will use that experience to connect it to the slave ship experience.  I will have them recall how crammed they felt during that drill, then I will ask them to consider what it would be like if the ceilings were only 5 feet tall...and they had to be like that for 6-10 weeks...and there were buckets of human waste sloshing around inside of that space...you get the idea!  Students will quickly become repulsed, which will build a stronger personal connection to the text.  We also take this opportunity to view two images (in resources) of slave ship diagrams which will help students to see how slave merchants treated their "cargo" like objects rather than people.  Discussing this before reading will help students to more quickly pick up Equiano's object-like terminology in the later reading.

Next, I will ask students to tell me more about why Equiano would have written this autobiography.  The series of questions will be:

  • Why do you think Equiano would have written a narrative about slavery?  Do the people already know that slavery is happening?  (Colonists are absolutely aware of slavery happening, but students will likely point out that they probably don't know the "gory details" behind it.  As I say to explain this phenomenon, the colonists know about it, but they just don't KNOW about it.)
  • What do you think the ultimate goal of this autobiography might be?  (Students will explain that it's to let colonists know what's really going on.  You might have to prod them a bit to get them to tell you that ultimately, his purpose will be to use his narrative to help convince colonists that slavery is wrong.)
  • Can you think of other examples of literature or film that told you an "inside story" that made you think about an issue differently?  (I always start with giving an example or two, so I will point out what Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did for the meat industry.  If they haven't heard of "pink slime," this would be another great one to bring up as an "inside story" that really makes a difference in people's habits and beliefs!  Student responses will vary, but I expect to get a lot of Supersize Me, Food, Inc., and other food references.  Blood diamonds, how veal is made, and even commercials from the Humane Society ones could be brought up.  Students definitely get a chance to demonstrate their diversity here.   Be sure to ask for each example if that "inside story" actually did something to change their behavior, though.  That will be an important step for looking at how Equiano's narrative is structured.)
  • What does it take for your shock at something like Supersize Me to turn into actionable changes in your behavior?  (Again, responses will vary here, but the most important point to pull out is that it must connect with you in some sort of real way, and even then, it might not work.  Audiences are different!)


After the discussion concludes, I will share a video to spur discussion about the possibilities of the "behind the scenes" point of view and the possible powers of persuasion that lie within.  We will watch an ABC News's "Foxconn: An Exclusive Inside Look."   

Then, we will discuss if they learned anything that would change their behaviors or habits.  If not, I will have them speculate about what the creator of the video could have included to sway an opinion.  This is to further emphasize that more than just shock is needed to change behavior.  I will also take this opportunity to ask students if the fact that ABC has such close ties with Foxconn is damaging to this video's credibility.  Since we will be looking explicitly at credibility tonight with John Smith, this will be a great tie in!

Guided Close Reading (20 minutes)

Next, I will conduct a whole-class reading of the excerpt "The Interesting Narrative" by Olaudah Equiano.  To ensure that all students take part in reading and are attentively following along, I use "Popcorn Reading" so that students must read at least a sentence and no more than a page (which never happens, but hey!) when called on by their peers.  Throughout the reading, I will draw attention to key points, including:

  • In the first four paragraphs, what does he primarily use to demonstrate the horrors of slavery to an audience that largely can't relate to it?  Where are some examples?  (He relies on sensory descriptions, but he also shows that the slaves really have no idea what is going on.  Another point that should be covered is that he uses examples with children dying and preferring suicide to staying on the boat, which many people can imagine and relate to more readily.  Equiano's word choice of "cargo," "parcels," and others also shows colonists how people are clearly being treated like property.)
  • He uses the term "improvident avarice."  What does he mean by that?  What are some modern day examples of improvident avarice?
  • In reality, there are hundreds of slaves aboard the vessel and only a few captains.  What's preventing them from overthrowing the boat?  (Students will recognize that they have weapons and the slaves have been weakened due to starvation and conditions, but they may not immediately put together that they are using fear as a form of control.  If they don't get this right away, I will have them answer the same question as above, just substituting the scenario of many students in a school versus just a few teachers and administrators.  What keeps them from overthrowing us?  Usually fear of parents or the law turns up, which can be paralleled to the slaves.)
  • He uses some really strong language to give descriptions and explain his feelings.  What are some examples of those very precise words?
  • Why does his tone change so drastically when he is talking about the fish?  What purpose does that achieve in his narrative for the audience?  (Students will point out that this shows that hope and curiosity still exists in this place, which many colonists would think was just devoid of everything good.  The fact that goodness still exists there could be that extra spur to the reader to take more action.)
  • How effective do you think this narrative is for Equiano's purpose?
  • How does Equiano's message nearly completely hinge on the literacy skills of the reader and Equiano himself?



20 minutes

After our guided group discussion, students will begin working independently on breaking down another complex text, an excerpt from "The General History of Virginia."  In this activity, students will read the entire excerpt, and while reading, they will create a Google Doc which summarizes Smith's text after every 1-2 paragraphs.  Summarizing is a key skill for both reading and research tasks, so early practice here will make life much easier in the future.

In addition to the summaries, I will emphasize to students that Smith has a notoriously bad reputation for exaggerating his tales, so like Columbus, he has some credibility issues of which readers must be cognizant.  He was nearly imprisoned for lying to his employer, a trading company, and his continued employment leaned heavily on his written accounts (like Columbus!).  Furthermore, Henry Adams went so far as to call Smith's purpose in writing the stories contained in "The General History of Virginia" "nothing less than the entire erasure of one of the more attractive portions of American history!"  With that in mind, students will also need to document any specific points in the reading assignment which seem to to be credibility "red flags" and explain why they do not believe the claim.  The Common Core demands authors to evaluate all information for author and source credibility, and tying evidence to reasoning is key for the Common Core's argumentation standards.  This activity practices both of those goals, all while decoding complex text.

While formal language use is important, I will encourage them to write down their thoughts and summaries in their own "inner conversational style," even if it comes off as informal, because they will learn and remember information better if it's fully incorporated into their natural language base.  To that end, I even include colloquial language like "chillax" and "nah" in my summaries and credibility statements to demonstrate that summarizing should absolutely be something my brain naturally understands.  This also adds some humor to John Smith (which is already great fodder for humor since he exaggerates so much!), and makes the text more approachable.  Students may finish this assignment in class, but it is likely they will have to finish it at home.  If they do finish early, they can get a start on their homework.

Next Steps

Any student that has not completed their summary and credibility assessment of the "General History of Virginia," they will need to complete this for homework.  We will use this analysis for comparing and contrasting to our next colonial narrative, "Of Plymouth Plantation" by William Bradford.