A Hands-on Learning Activity

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 curiosity.

2. Next, explain to the class that today they will read about one small aspect of slavery. Take some time to explain the purpose of the lesson - to develop a clear understanding of the true evil of slavery and to develop empathy and a historically accurate view of how it worked. Emphasize that their experience is not intended to recreate slavery, which would be inappropriate, but to gain insight into something too often seen as an "institution" or "way of life" rather than the atrocity it was. Explain to the class that they will experience no fear, no pain, no threats, nor any of the many other negatives of slavery. At the end of the class, they will understand why the cotton gin was a powerful invention that increased the demand for slaves and contributed to the causes of the Civil War. Do not rush this conversation as it is a huge contrast to the musical entrance.

3. Show the class a small amount of cotton (don't let them touch it yet and keep the rest hidden). Explain that they will read about Solomon Northup's first day as a slave. Share how Solomon Northup was a free man kidnapped into slavery and that all slaves were tested to set a benchmark of how hard they could work. Explain how the words they will read are Solomon's directly. Proceed to have a discussion on the emotions one might feel during those first moments as a slave. This discussion is important to bring out the humanity of how slavery destroyed lives and still scars America.

4. After the discussion, distribute the reading "Picking Cotton" to the class. Emphasize again 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. Share that many slave narratives exist that allow historians to gain insights to the evil of the slave era in America. Kids sometimes struggle with the term "evil" but it is important to be accurate in language so students don't conclude something like "well, that is just the way they lived."

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 lesson.

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 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. Remind the students that their was no other method of cleaning cotton than by hand prior to the invention of the cotton gin. Discuss the mechanical operation of the cotton gin and how much more profitable growing cotton became (thus increasing the demand for slaves)..

7. Conclude with a discussion on the affects of the cotton gin on slavery, the Industrial Revolution and American history.

Teaching difficult history requires careful thought and planning. Teaching Tolerance has additional resources that can support teachers in finding the right approach to ensuring students develop the necessary understanding about the past to make a positive difference for Social Justice today.

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Cotton Cleaning Lesson Plan