Teaching Slavery in Schools

Teaching Slavery
Teaching Slavery

Tonight I read an article about how a teacher used hands on, unorthodox methods to teaching Slavery in Schools

I used to work in Education and was lucky enough to visit Liverpool’s Maritime Museum with a school trip of 7th grade students. Despite hearing rave reviews about the museum (also know as the slavery museum) I thought the experience in itself was poor.

For me, the museum was laid out all wrong, there was no sense of beginning middle and end, it was merely a collection of artefacts surrounded by facts. I was Bored, the kids were bored.

What’s the best way to Teach about Slavery?

When we got back to school, the teacher was asking the kids about what they saw, they asked me to assist because I was the I.T Instructor, and they had to create presentations on the PC. I couldn’t believe how disengaged the kids were, they literally had no understanding of what had happened in slavery. The worksheet asked them what the triangular trade was, but no one knew.

I decided to shake things up a bit. I split the class into two groups.

Group one I sent out into the corridor to await further instruction. Group two stayed in the classroom. I told them to elect a leader. Every student had to take a role, of man woman or child. They had to pretend that they were a village. This basically consisted of them standing around talkig to each other. (Which in this instance was fine).

I went out to Group 1, I told them that they were to be a group of slavers. They had to go into the classroom and take over. This was all stage managed by me to avoid total chaos. I acted as an intervening narrator/Drama director.

The slavers came in to the room and started shouting, yelling and generally being aggressive. The villagers were scared and shocked. I stepped into avoid confrontation and explained to the whole class what had just happened.You could see that for the first time,  the kids were actually interested.

I explained that the slavers had just come in and taken over the village. I tasked them to seperate the men, women and children, this happened quite quickly and the villagers complied. I asked the villagers how they might feel if this happened to them today. What would they do?

Of course, a lot of kids said “Fight sir, we’d fight” again, I explained that many villages would have fought back but pointed out that the Slavers generally had one major advantage and that was guns.

Continuing the narrative, I told the villagers “You are all tied or in chains, naked, infront of your neighbours. men seperated from women” old people often killed”. I explained that often people would be marched many miles away from the village.

The kids began to ask questions like, what are you going to do with us. “Where are we going?”

Once I had explained that they would be put onto ships and taken to the Americas, they seemed happy, not thinking that it wasn’t the America they are familiar with  today. I reminded them. “You are no longer free“.

The Middle Passage

To illustrate conditions on the ship, I made them lie down on the floor next to each other, all packed in. Again some students were flippant. Until I again reminded them, “you are chained” no one person can move away from the others. I asked the student’s what happens to some people when they get on a boat on the sea? Immediately someone shouted “seasick sir,” .  This prompted someone to ask “what do you do when you want a wee or a poo sir”,. she didn’t like the answer. “you have to go, right where you are”. They didn’t like that much. Then I told them that, the voyage would have lasted several months. They were lying on rough planks, many people would have gotten sick.

they asked me what would have happened once they got to america or the Caribbean. I explained that they would all have been slit up into lots and sold like cattle. Husbands and wives, mothers and children, brothers and sisters all split up. I asked them to imagine what it would be like to be split up from their families, and friends and to most likely never see them again.

At this Point I decided that my part was done, I noticed that some of the girls were quite upset at the very thought of this…I’d gotten them engaged, they wanted to know about slavery, and why this happened, I handed back to the teacher, and it was a different class.

Teaching Slavery should be more interactive

In my opinion, Teaching Slavery should be more interactive. Kids are simply never going to be interested in a lot of dates and facts without being able to put it into context.  Some people may criticise my methods,  but most kid’s today just cannot conceive an event of such enormity without strong narrative.

Sadly, the Slavery Museum did not provide a clear explanation of how slavery had begun, nor how it must have affected the people taken as slaves, or those who did the slaving. The museum could have led the visitors through an engaging timeline, detailing the middle passage with mockups of ships, actors to illustrate the conditions.

The tour could then conclude with the after effects of slavery, and the world we see today. The core components are there already, I just feel they could be layed out more effectively.

Raising Awareness of Slavery

By leading people through each stage, it would make the experience more interactive and visitors could not miss the detail. The Slavery Museum should have the same effect as the Holocaust Museums. This is how I think we could spread greater knowledge aout the transatlantic slave trade. Let’s face it people are woefully ignorant.

One girl in the class had a Jamaican parent. I was talking about the after effects of slavery, pointing out that many black people who live in Britain today have Caribbean ancestry and that those ancestors are directly descended from African slaves. She was incredulous, stating that “I’m not African, I’m jamaican”. Sad really.

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8 thoughts on “Teaching Slavery in Schools

  • 20th January 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Very good! Yes, the kids nowadays are so removed from the idea of slavery, what it was like, why it was done, that we have to employ creative ways such as this in order to get them to understand. Very often, their teachers don’t know that much, either. Films work well, too. And those of us who are grownups and have learned about the horrors of slavery can always learn more as well.

  • 27th February 2013 at 6:40 pm

    The Liverpool Slavery History Tour gives a true history of the port of Liverpool. Seen by many as the marvellous entrepreneurship of wealth from shipping, the port of Liverpool was in fact the result of the profits made by merchants through the Transatlantic Crossings and African peoples’ enslavement. Liverpool should not be proud of her elegant buildings, and wealth, but be ashamed of where that wealth came from. Elegant as they are, still, the buildings represent the riches gained from the profits of slavery. No-one should ever be proud of that.

  • 28th February 2013 at 2:58 am

    For anyone visiting the International Slavery Museum, I would recommend that they first go on the Liverpool Slavery History Tour. The guide provides some of the true history of the Transatlantic Crossings and African enslavement and in particular, the involvement of Liverpool’s shipping merchants.

  • 4th April 2013 at 11:41 am

    What’s the best way to teach abiut slavery?: Begin with teaching Ffrican History. Teach the children their African history – not his-story (ie, that we were uncivilized, uncultured,babarians,etc and the white man set us free) Let them know that African history does not originate in, or with, slavery. But that the transatlantic slve trade (kidnapping and removal of africans from their native homeland homeland) comes much, much later and is only a speck of dust in the origin,civilization and history of Africa and Africans. African history is world history.

    • 7th June 2013 at 6:40 am

      So true! If we as educators accidentally suggest that Black History begins with slavery, it changes the way kids think of themselves and their future.
      Also, when we do teach slavery, it’s useful to look at the earlier history of slavery, so that children realize that the black-slaves-to-white-masters story develops out of earlier slave histories that don’t have a racial element. This helps us to present the two evils of slavery and racism as separate problems.
      My own interest in the slavery topic is because I teach Vikings for KS2. Vikings raided English villages as slavers a thousand years ago.

      • 7th June 2013 at 6:48 am

        Just re-read what I wrote. Perhaps the phrase “separate problems” could be confusing.
        Of course, the two things came together and were inseparable in the history of slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but each also exists separately.

  • 2nd May 2013 at 7:32 am

    What screams at me from this post is the the teachers had not pre prepared the students for the vist and intoduction to a potentially traumatic and disturbing subject.
    Too many educators want to ‘pass the buck’ when it comes to teachimg slavery,beacuse it is, too difficult, complex un-comfortable….
    You can’t just put put students in front of a museum exhibition and it expect it to do the work for you,it can’t. Which is what you have discovered.

    Interesting that you did the work you should have done BEFORE the visit AFTER the visit!

  • 12th October 2015 at 10:21 am

    Gwiz, start them early, expose them to Frank Wilderson and Orlando Patterson who develop and detail the essence of slavery being “social death” so they may not see it as a historic event but ongoing reality


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