Problem-based Teaching: Applying a Unit on Slavery

I have been thinking about the structure of the class for several years now, but this week of TNReady writing tests has affirmed in me a new teaching principle.
Principle #3: There should be no standard essays assigned after the halfway point of the class.
Don't get me wrong. I understand the need for assigning informative, narrative and argumentative essays. They're in the standards. Even in 11th grade, students need to brush up on thesis-writing and organizational skills.

But at some point in the semester, the writing teacher needs to be able to move on--not necessarily from assigning writing, but from "writing in a box."

Teaching in the block as I do, there was time for one more unit between the beginning of the 2nd Nine Weeks and the writing test (given at the 60% mark of the semester or year here in Tennessee).

I based the unit on a series of slavery texts that Tennessee developed three years ago:

  • Abraham Lincoln's "The Emancipation Proclamation"
  • John C. Calhoun's "Slavery, A Positive Good"
  • Frederick Douglass, "The Meaning of Fourth of July to the Negro"

There wasn't much new in the teaching of these texts. We focused on rhetoric, on diction, on tone, just as the unit read. Leading up to the assessment, though, I wanted students to look beyond the historic texts to the present day (or the future). In this group of standard English 11 students, I wanted to challenge them--to give them a topic worth writing about.

Perhaps satire might move them.

I developed a text-prompt of my own focusing on a new scenario. Set in 2037, the American president wanted to move welfare recipients out of inner-city housing projects onto privately owned farms, where residents would work for the profit of a corporation called Genessee Enterprises. (At first I put oblique references to slavery-era personages, but I gave up on this in order to appear objective.)

I filled the article with politicians talking about saving taxpayer dollars and the virtue of hard work. I allowed one reference to Auschwitz in this quote, "We are freeing these people by giving them work," placed in the mouth of a future Tennessee senator. I copied another quote, "Liberal Democrats reintroduced slavery to America through welfare programs" on a right-wing blog.

I balanced these quotes with others that implied that America might return to slavery. Then I set students loose to answer the question for themselves. "Write an argumentative essay supporting or opposing President Collins’s No Welfare: Just Work program."

It was amazing to see how engaged kids were with this prompt. One of my struggling writers insisted on looking up the 13th Amendment and using it in his argument. As class dismissed, two best friends, Alex and Zack, that I struggle to keep apart realized they had given opposite answers and began to argue over the fictitious program.

All in all, this was one of the best Common Core-related assessments I have given yet.  Here's a link to the full prompt if you're interested.


  1. Great project and forward thinking! You should publish. I feel some of our Tea Party Republicans are aiming for this sort of answer to poverty. I think many of us in the mainstream public do not understand the logic or implementation of Common Core. Then again, many in the mainstream public don't do a lot of background research in much of anything these day except for "callous" FB posts. Thank you for enlightening your students and the mainstream public.

    1. Where would you suggest publishing? I'm not really sure where to start on lessons like these.


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