Saturday, September 27, 2014

How to Teach the Middle Passage

Begin with the Triangle Trade, the text, and the smart board or overhead.  In their notebooks, have kids draw the east coast of North Am and South Am, and a rough blob for England and then a really rough outline of the west coast of Europe and Africa. Have them draw arrows indicating what items (or, sadly, people) are moving where.
money, money, money...

Then show them the famous cutaway schematics of slave ships. Have them really look at the pictures. Ask what's going on and WAIT...and then accept only full answers, not blurts like "Slave ship!" or "Cross section!" Dig until you get "It shows how to maximize how many slaves you could fit on a ship." Ask why maximizing would be important to the captain. Note the awful tinny sound the word "profit" makes in the presence of these pictures.
Oh my heart.

Ask kids to draw conclusions about conditions on board. Don't move on until darkness, stuffiness, heat, overwhelming smell, seasickness, easy spread of disease, and no dignity about bodily functions come up. Squelch the "Ewwws" by discussing shame, how they would feel about the lack of dignity afforded to them. Work until the students feel compassion, not grossed-outness.

Draw attention to the fact that the people captured on these ships were losing their direction--many never having been aboard a ship or seen the ocean. And then their language. Pick up Alex Haley's Roots and explain that he was blessed to have a thread of language clues passed down, that he had heard that his great-great etc granddad, Kunta Kinte, had gone to chop wood for a drum but never came back.
so good.

Tell how Haley tracked down his ancestor all the way to the west coast of Africa. How he listened to the griots, the genealogic story tellers that memorized ancestry their whole lives. How he listened to the translator say "Kunta Kinte went to chop wood for a drum, but was lost." About how he wept. About how the tribe wept with him and welcomed him home. Cry, because you just can't help getting teary eyed when you tell this.
"When a griot dies, it is as if a library has burned down." --Alex Haley
Explain that Haley wrote a book about his ancestors using what he found out. Tell them he spent the night on a ship to connect to Kunta's ordeal on the Middle Passage. Read excerpts from Roots about Kunta's first day aboard the slave ship.

Show a six minute clip of the film "Roots," the scenes where the men are being exercised on deck, of a dead man being unchained and unceremoniously flung over the ship's side. Listen for the student who mutters, "Horrible," or perhaps "That's so harsh." Congratulate him for his word choice. Share that this part of history is soooo much more than "sad." Suggest "tragic," "unthinkable," "shameful," and so on.

How did Haley know what to write about? Pass out four excerpts from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, a memoir about his capture as an eight year old boy and his ordeal on a slave ship. Have the kids read it, underlining parts they believe the other students should know about it since everyone is only reading one-fourth of the work. Field what they've read onto a class chart. Take questions. Later, contrast this reading with one John Barbot, a man who was a captain on a slave ship. Analyze the differences. Hey look, ma, I've been doing Common Core stuff since before you were born.
I only define some key words in brackets. It's highly readable.
When the bell rings, watch as they solemnly gather their belongings and file out with their brains (and hopefully hearts) full. Quickly rewind the old VHS video exactly 6:55, get the smart board back in order, and do it three more times.


  1. Love it, you're such an awesome teacher and the lessons and emotions you help get across is great... especially since you help them realize it on their own.