Closer Readings Commentary

Reach Beyond the Black History You Already Teach!

Laurel Sneed, the creator of Crafting Freedom (, is an educator, researcher, and media producer/film-maker based in Durham, North Carolina.

Would you be interested in a teaching resource available online that is chock full of dramatic stories of courage and ingenuity that bring critical American themes to life? Crafting Freedom provides educators with an easy to use, Common Core-targeted resource on the African American experience during the era of slavery.

The site resonates with themes like resistance to tyranny and oppression; transitioning from poverty and despair to comfort and prosperity; and persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. On this site you will find ready-to-use lesson plans, short, custom-designed videos, PDF slide shows, printable teacher support, and student handouts.

What more is in it for teachers?

The Crafting Freedom website was spawned from a popular NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop: “Crafting Freedom: African American Artisans, Entrepreneurs, and Abolitionists of the Upper South” that started in 2004. Over many summers, the workshops brought top humanities scholars together with excellent teachers from around the nation. They explored the lives of several Antebellum African American figures—some well known, some not—and they served as a kind of incubator for creative instructional ideas and engaging humanities lesson plans.

We decided to capture the best of the teacher-generated instruction in a Web resource that addresses concerns that teachers expressed, such as:

  • The need for “YouTube” length videos;
  • The need for a Web resource on which most of the material resides;
  • The need for concise material that the novice as well as the veteran teacher can use;
  • Built-in teacher training for each of the lessons through the inclusion of “teacher tools” (support material) as well as classroom tested “recipes” or step-by-step lesson plans; and
  • For the more experienced teacher, “stand-alone” material that can readily be customized and “mixed and matched” with existing instructional elements.

EDSITEment and Crafting Freedom

Thanks to another generous NEH grant, fourteen Crafting Freedom lessons will be converted and uploaded to EDSITEMENT in 2014, and newly aligned to Common Core.This includes ten extant Crafting Freedom lessons as well as four new ones. Approximately one lesson will be uploaded each month. As a bonus, two of the new lessons are based on the life of Solomon Northup, a free black from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into plantation slavery. His riveting slave narrative, Twelve Years a Slave,has been made into a highly acclaimed new movie.

The Common Core standards and teaching with slave narratives

The purpose of slave narratives was to convert the reader to the antislavery cause by documenting through eyewitness accounts how slavery undermined the very foundations upon which the nation was built. They are not only very compelling and unforgettable primary sources but also represent a uniquely American literary tradition. Like jazz, a homegrown American musical form that has impacted many other forms of music, the slave narrative tradition has influenced many classic American works of literature such as: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man; and Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Slave narratives are also examples of primary source-based learning that is essential to meeting the Common Core standards. The form encourages students to focus on thinking skills, the examination of evidence, analysis, the identification of points of view and perspective, as well as argument. The widespread adoption of Common Core provides an unprecedented opportunity to infuse more slave narratives into the teaching of history, language arts, and other subject areas.

According to Dr. William L. Andrews, the scholar-consultant to the Crafting Freedom project and a nationally know expert on slave narratives:

Some of the most important revisionist scholarship in the historical study of American slavery in the last forty years has marshaled the slave narratives as key testimony. Slave narratives and their fictional descendants have played a major role in national debates about slavery, freedom, and American identity that have challenged the conscience and the historical consciousness of the United States ever since its founding.

Solomon Northup’s slave narrative especially illustrates how slavery ripped families apart and made a mockery of marriage vows, parental love, and parental obligations to their offspring. In one of the lessons on Northrup’s narrative—to be available on EDSITEment in early 2014—students read a segment of Northrup's narrative and analyze how it illustrates slavery’s undermined of the values and principals inherent in the social institution of marriage.

Crafting Freedom lessons and the slave narratives they teach have universal appeal because they reinforce the African American theme of “Making a way where there is no way.” This is a theme that not only Americans but people throughout the world who yearn to pursue life, liberty, and happiness against all odds can relate to and celebrate.