A Hands-on Learning Activity

This lesson is easily customized to your needs and objectives.  Be sure to
modify it to fit your classroom demographics and age group so the tone of
the lesson is appropriate.  

1.Students enter class to a modern version of the slave spiritual “Cotton-
Eyed Joe” playing.  It is playing loud and it is a version that they recognize
from the radio and school dances.  Students will instantly wonder why this
song is playing; just deflect their questions to preserve the surprise.  A
version of this song can be obtained through Itunes.

2.Next, explain to the class that today they will simulate one small aspect of
slavery.  Take some time to explain how their slave experience will in no way
be anything like the real thing.  Be sure to discuss how the main objective of
the lesson is to develop empathy, not to recreate slavery.  Explain to the
class that they will experience no fear, no pain, no threats, nor any of the
many others negatives of slavery.  At the end of the class they will go free
like most slaves never did.

3.Show the class a small amount of cotton (don't let them touch it yet and
keep the rest hidden).  Explain that since this is their first day as a slave,
that they will have to be tested.  Explain that every slave was “tested” on
their first day and that their “test” will involve picking and cleaning cotton.  
Proceed to have a discussion on the emotions one might feel during those
first moments as a slave.  Ask why a slave would need to be “tested”.

4.After the discussion, distribute the reading “Picking Cotton” to the class.  
Explain to the class how the words they are about to read were written by a
real person who really experienced a “first day” as a slave (with older
students use the term primary source).  Explain that nothing about it is fake
or made-up and that nothing is closer to the truth.  

5.Proceed to read “Picking Cotton” together as a class.  The teacher's
edition  contains specific prompts and details necessary for step five of the

6.Distribute the handout “The Cotton Gin – Eli Whitney's Patent Drawing”.  
Hand to each student their individual portion of raw cotton.   This handout
can be either read before or after cleaning the cotton.  At your chosen time,
instruct the class to work as fast as they can to clean the debris (leaves,
cotton boll shell pieces) and seeds out of the cotton.  Instruct them to make
three piles on their desk.  One pile for pure, clean cotton, a second pile of
seeds (which would be used the next planting season and for animal feed),
and debris.  Walk around the room and inspect the clean cotton piles for
impurities and have the students rework the pile as necessary. Remind the
students that their was no other method of cleaning cotton than by hand.  
Ask the class if they think there would be a “test” for cleaning cotton as
there was for picking it.

7.Conclude with a discussion on the affects of the cotton gin on slavery, the
Industrial Revolution and American history.  
Have a question?  Please email  info@cottonclassroom.com
Cotton Cleaning Lesson Plan