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Teaching Teens and Tweens US History: Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Road to the Civil War

As I was preparing to homeschool my teens for the first time, I asked my kids which social studies topics were the most interesting to them. My daughter told me she wanted to learn about the Civil Rights movement and slavery.

Race relations has always been one of my favorite things to learn about, and that curiosity led me to major in sociology in college. So I set out to plan how to teach my teens about the history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement. If you want to understand the present, you first need to understand the past. Let me repeat that:

If you want to understand the present, you first need to understand the past.

There are way too many adults in America who are yelling about how things should be even though they don’t have any understanding of how things came to be, or frankly any understanding of what is.

As with everything I do, I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time researching, and I want to share what I’ve found with you. So if you’d like to benefit from all of my overthinking and save yourself some time and effort, please read on!

Now as I said, I’ve been homeschooling my kids, so what I am doing is a full history curriculum. However, if your teens are in public school, you definitely can pick and choose from this to supplement your kids’ learning. I think most of us can agree that history is not taught as well in public school as it should be.

Photo by Thomas DiRoma on Unsplash

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Getting started

First I chose which curriculum to purchase. I wanted to be able to teach both my middle schooler and my high schooler at the same time. I do some lessons together, usually about twice per week, as well as a daily read-aloud. In addition to that, I do separate lessons with each kid a couple of times per week so that I’m able to meet them at their level.

Homeschoolers often choose a “spine” for their curriculum, meaning a text book or overarching book. I chose two different purchased curriculums to use simultaneously.

First, I purchased The Good and the Beautiful Year 4. In this book, unit 3 is about slavery, abolitionism, and the Civil War. Unit 4 is about the American Civil Rights movement, which is what we will study next. The Good and the Beautiful is a family-style homeschool curriculum that can be used for grades K-12. It has a Christian world view. It’s a great choice for families that want to be able to do lessons with various grade levels at the same time, and it is also quite reasonably priced.

After using The Good and the Beautiful history curriculum for a few months now, I would suggest that it’s best for grades 2-8. It can be used for high school, but it needs to be supplemented in my opinion.

Secondly, I purchased parts of two programs from Beautiful Feet. For my high school son, I purchased most of the items in the Modern U.S. and World History: A Literature Approach for Senior High. This is a pretty advanced level intended for 11th and 12th grade. If you do the complete program, it is enough for both a history credit and a literature credit.

I also bought several of the items from the Modern American and World History Pack, which is for 5th-8th grade. I got the Modern American and World History Teacher’s Guide which is only about $25 on their website (although happily, I was able to find it used for less). You can buy all of the books that come with it if you want, or you can get them as needed from the library. I’ll describe the recommended books below.

Another popular choice amongst homeschoolers for a spine used for studying American History is The History of Us series by Joy Hakim. I have two of these books and I think they are excellent! Hakim does a marvelous job of writing history as an engaging narrative. The chapters are short and easy to follow. You could use them as a read-aloud or have your children read them independently. For the topics that I am covering here, you would need A History of Us: Liberty for All? and A History of Us: War, Terrible War 1855-1865. You also can purchase the full set of A History of Us. Many libraries carry these books as well, so you can check at your local library if you are on a budget.

Teaching tweens and teens about US History: Slavery, abolition, and the Civil War

Books for teaching about slavery and abolitionism

Each day I read to my kids from a read-aloud that fits in with our history curriculum. For this unit, we started with Walking the Road to Freedom by Jeri Ferris, which is about the life of Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth was born a slave and became an abolitionist. Her story is quite inspiring. I was able to find this one at my local library, and it is also available on Amazon.

Next we read Escape to Freedom, a story about the Underground Railroad by Ruth Fosdick Jones. This was a very enjoyable book. It’s about a boy who lives in Buffalo, New York, who discovers that his parents are helping slaves escape to Canada. This book is a bit harder to find. I purchased it from The Good and the Beautiful.

After that, we read Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt, which is one of the books that is part of the Beautiful Feet program that I described above for grades 5-8. Across Five Aprils is about the Civil War, told from the perspective of a boy who lives in Illinois. This book was so-so. The story was okay, but it took a while to get interesting, and some of it was a bit confusing. I wouldn’t do this one with a student younger than 7th grade.

My son and I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. This is a long, heavy book, but very worthwhile. It is the first book in the Beautiful Feet high school program that I mentioned above. I used the teacher’s guide to lead a discussion with my son once or twice a week.

For younger tweens, a good choice is to read Go Free or Die: A Story About Harriet Tubman by Jeri Ferris. My daughter read this one as a supplement to our other lessons. Harriet Tubman was born into slavery and became one of the most important conductors on the Underground Railroad. She lived a fascinating life. I’ve also heard good reviews for The Story of Harriet Tubman: A Biography Book for New Readers by Christine Platt.

For slightly older kids, Harriet Tubman: Freedom Bound by Janet Benge has good reviews and is recommended for ages 10 and up, so would be a good choice for 5th-8th grade.

If you’re looking for a book about Harriet Tubman for teens or more advanced tween readers, Harriet, The Moses of Her People by Sarah H. Bradford is recommended by The Good and the Beautiful and they have a lovely edition available on their website. This book also happens to be integrated into their High School 2 Language Arts curriculum, so you could consider that, as well. My son is currently doing the High School 1 Language Arts and I think it is a good, thorough language arts curriculum.

Another book recommended in the Beautiful Feet curriculum is The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I love learning about Frederick Douglass; his life was filled with amazing accomplishments. Be aware though, this one has some pretty disturbing descriptions of slavery. You may want to use as a read-aloud and pick and choose how you want to present it to younger or more sensitive kids. What I did was I chose several chapters to read to my daughter and then we watched some videos to learn more.

There are lots of books on Frederick Douglass available. For younger tweens you could use Who Was Frederick Douglass by April Jones Prince.

Another excellent and highly recommended book is Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man by Timothy Sandefur. This book is the perfect choice for teens (and parents). It describes Douglass’ value to our country as a statesman and constitutionalist and explains how his ideas influenced the thinking of those who came later than him such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King Jr. And amazingly, Sandefur has kept his book to only 140 pages, so it is a rather quick read.

Videos, websites, and other resources for learning about slavery and abolitionism

If you are using The Good and the Beautiful curriculum, you will be introduced to John Newton, an important British Abolitionist who also wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” and William Wilberforce, the man responsible for bringing the British slave trade to an end. This affected what happened in the US, so it is relevant, and certainly is relevant to discussing the African slave trade.

I found a couple of useful items on Youtube to supplement talking about them:

The Underground Railroad, William Still, and Harriet Tubman

PBS has an interesting documentary about William Still, one of the notable conductors of the Underground Railroad. Click here to go to the PBS website about the William Still documentary. I found a really helpful worksheet to go with it for only $0.99 on the Teachers Pay Teachers website, which is full of resources. The William Still worksheet was made by Engaging History on Teachers Pay Teachers and I appreciated having it to guide my kids’ understanding of the documentary.

Here is a trailer for the documentary if you want to get an idea of what it is like:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5KTKrvErko
Documentary about William Still

I incorporated some lessons about the Underground Railroad that are available for free on the PBS website. I also used a lesson that I found, oddly enough, from the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park. The lesson is called Coded Spirituals – Metaphor in African American Spirituals. They have some other pretty interesting lessons about jazz and other Lousiana history, so click around if that sort of thing interests you.

“Wade in the Water” is one of the spirituals discussed in the lesson

There are more free resources about the Underground Railroad on the Scholastic website.

Teachers Pay Teachers has lots of great resources to help make history come alive. I used several during this unit to supplement my middle schooler’s learning. She completed this Underground Railroad Map Activity. We liked the variety of having some activities for her to do alone rather than as a lesson with me.

I also purchased this Harriet Tubman coloring page for her to keep her hands busy while I read to her. Again, it’s fun and engaging to mix things up.

Too late, I discovered The Sweetest Thing on Teachers Pay Teachers. This author creates amazingly useful differentiated passages for grades 3-8. I used her product when we studied reconstruction, but didn’t learn about it in time to use her products for abolitionism or the Civil War. She creates non-fiction articles that are 1-2 pages long on a variety of relevant topics. She then tweaks them slightly to make it work for five different levels of readers. When you purchase her product, you get all five levels of each of the articles, plus a page of follow-up questions for each article – sometimes even more than one page. Here is the link to her Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad pack.

Sojourner Truth

One of the most amazing moments in Sojourner’s Truth life was when she gave her compelling “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. There are a bunch of dramatizations of this moment on the internet, but this one is my favorite:

I purchased another resource for my middle school daughter to use independently from Teachers Pay Teachers. This online assignment about Sojourner Truth is from Pointer Education.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he said to her, “So you’re the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.” Clearly, this in itself is reason enough that your students need to know and understand Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

If you choose to have your high schooler read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I highly recommend, let me direct you to some of the resources I found for diving deeper. For a thorough lesson plan that you can access for free, I think this Uncle Tom’s Cabin lesson plan from the University of Virginia is very comprehensive. I especially like lesson 7 from this collection which provides a compilation of newspaper reviews of Stowe’s novel. It was very interesting to discuss the various reactions to her writing of Stowe’s contemporaries with my son.

I have come to love the website Battlefields.org – it is amazing to me how incredibly extensive their information on the Civil War is. I found these lessons about Uncle Tom’s Cabin on that website. They say they are for grades 6-8, which I think is a bit young to read the whole book. I think these lessons would work just fine for high schoolers. And if you want to use them with younger students, you could certainly read snippets of the book and watch videos about it and also do these lessons.

PBS Learning Media has a teaching guide about using primary sources to better understand Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Understanding how to use primary sources is an important part of a strong middle school and high school education. You also can go directly to the Digital Public Library of America and search for whichever types of primary resources you need.

The website Shmoop has compiled a helpful list of videos and other resources that go with Uncle Tom’s Cabin along with some interesting thoughts on all of them.

You have likely heard the accusation that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is racist, or you have heard the name Uncle Tom used as a derogatory term against certain black people. I chose to discuss these ideas with my son after we were done reading the novel. Personally, it makes me very frustrated that people see the book that way. I think that anyone who has actually read the book and studied the context in which it was written will understand that it was revolutionary for its time.

There are many people in our current society who believe that they are smarter than people of the past, and think that we should evaluate the people who lived in the past with the same rules and understandings of our current culture. I find that hubris tiresome. People in the past made mistakes, and we have grown and matured as a culture in some ways, and lost ground in others. When we look at the choices that people made in the past, we need to contextualize them. Harriet Beecher Stowe had some ideas about race that we as a culture consider wrong nowadays. But for her time, she was revolutionary. And Uncle Tom was an amazing character. Using his character’s name as an insult just shows the ignorance of the person doing the insulting.

All of that said, here is link to the video that Shmoop did on the subject. AFTER you read the book, watch it and discuss with your teenagers. Personally, I find it a bit annoying, but I think we need to teach our kids to stand up to this sort of misinformation.

And while I am on my high horse, I would like to direct you to something very interesting on the same topic. As I was looking for resources about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I accidentally stumbled upon this video. It is about the current uprising of black conservatives and their backlash against the insult “Uncle Tom.” I haven’t yet watched the film that they are discussing, but I found this discussion about the film to be very educational. I would recommend that you watch it yourself and then decide if you think it’s appropriate to share with your kids.

Why are black conservatives called Uncle Tom?

Frederick Douglass

I watched a bunch of videos on YouTube about Frederick Douglass. These two are my favorites, and the ones I chose to use. The first is better for younger tweens, and the second is better for teens.

Politics of the 1800’s – The road to the Civil War

I found several resources on Teachers Pay Teachers that I was quite happy with. The Civil War Interactive Notebook by Amy Mezni was a helpful product for scaffolding my daughter’s learning. My daughter is a kinesthetic learner, and I thought it would be good for her to have an interactive notebook, meaning having to cut/paste/color items in a notebook to organize her learning. While its title refers to the Civil War, it also is full of pages that cover slavery, abolition, and the political events that led up to the Civil War. The author lists it as an item for 5th and 6th grade, but I think it is appropriate for middle school as well, depending on the level of your learners.

She also offers this version of the notebook for 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. I really like Amy Mezni’s style. You should give her other products a look, as well.

History with Mr. E is another good source on Teachers Pay Teachers. I purchased his Civil War Interactive Notebook.

I found a fantastic channel on YouTube for teaching kids about this period in US History. It’s called The Daily Bellringer. The man who makes the video intends them to be for the first five minutes of history class, to be used as a warm-up or review. I find that they are actually quite useful for teaching, and I’ve even told my kids that he is their “other history teacher!” I just love his style. He’s quick and to the point, yet thorough and engaging. It works great to use him to introduce the topic or to review what we discussed the day before, and then I have my daughter do a page of the interactive notebook described above to solidify her learning.

The Daily Bellringer’s YouTube channel is divided into playlists so you can easily find the topic that you need. The section entitled “sectionalism” is all about the events leading up to the Civil War, such as The Compromise of 1850, The Dred Scott case, The Kansas-Nebraska Act, and The Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Here is a sample:

He also has tons of videos about the Revolutionary War, the colonies, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Westward Expansion and more if you want to learn about those topics, too. As a mom who is trying to teach her kids the facts, I really appreciate the help. I think he would be appropriate to watch for grades 5-12 (and adults, too)!

If you have a high schooler that likes to learn online, Khan Academy has free lessons for US History and even AP US History. I gave it a try with my kids, but they didn’t really care for learning in this way. Many people do like it though, so take a look. If your high school student is interested in taking the AP US History test, this is a great way for them to prepare for free. It’s also a handy way to fill in the “holes” if you aren’t teaching everything – for example, this is how I had my son learn about The Mexican-American War, which was going on during this same time period.

Books for learning about the Civil War

If you want to teach your tweens and teens about the US Civil War, there are so many books available, it can be hard to know where to start! Let me tell you what we did.

I mentioned above that I used Across Five Aprils as a read-aloud while we studied the Civil War. At the same time, my high school son and I read and discussed Rifles for Watie. This is one of the books that was included in his Beautiful Feet Curriculum that I told you about at the beginning of this article.

We both preferred Rifles for Watie to Across Five Aprils. We found the characters more interesting, and we enjoyed learning about a side of the war that we hadn’t learned about before – that of the involvement of the Native Americans. This was a part of history I’d never been exposed to yet. And like most of history, it is complicated with no obvious “good guy” and “bad guy,” which I think is an important lesson for our children.

To be honest, both of these books are rather dry. It can be hard for modern kids to get through books written such a long time ago. If you know of any more exciting historical fiction about the Civil War era, please comment below!

My son and I also read part of the book Virginia’s General, another of the Beautiful Feet recommendations. It is a biography of General Lee and is quite well written if you want to learn more about him.

I’ve also linked below several other finds to try to bring this subject to life. One is about the technology of the Civil War, and the other is about Clara Barton, one of the many heroes of the era.

Another supplement that would work well for middle school or high school age kids learning about the Civil War era is this book study on Abraham Lincoln that is made by The Good and The Beautiful. It is listed as an 8th-grade book study, but I know people use them for 6th-10th grade, depending on the student. You can download a sample of the Abraham Lincoln book study here. It is 28 lessons meant to be used as a language arts curriculum for about 30 minutes per lesson. It covers vocabulary, grammar, and literature as well as geography, handwriting, and some art appreciation.

Videos for learning about the Civil War

You have probably heard about Ken Burns’ marvelous Civil War documentary. I was able to borrow some of the episodes from our local library. They are also available on Amazon. You can buy the DVDs or stream the videos. It’s an incredibly long documentary. I just watched one episode with my kids. But if your teens and tweens are up for it, it is an outstanding way to learn.

We also watched the 2012 movie Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s an excellent movie and a very good choice for more mature teens. It’s a slow-paced, thoughtful movie with a lot of big ideas. Probably not ideal for most younger tweens. It fits in as a good ending for a study of the Civil War, as it focuses on Lincoln’s work to pass the 13th amendment, which freed the slaves. You can stream Lincoln on Amazon. If you do choose to watch it, please be aware that one of the most violent, disturbing scenes is right at the beginning. I chose to skip the first couple of minutes for my 13-year-old.

If you’d like to supplement learning with some shorter videos, here are some other good ones I found:

There are two other very popular series of videos for teaching about American History that I’d like to discuss. The first is The Story of Us. This is a 12-episode documentary created by The History Channel that can be streamed for free with Amazon Prime. I know a lot of homeschool families like to use this series to supplement their American History studies.

Personally, I find The Story of Us to be fun to watch. However, I have several caveats. It’s SOOOO over-the-top. There are mind-boggling special effects, intense music, and cameos from all sorts of famous Americans to give us their opinion on history. Pretty interesting when it’s a CEO of a major company or a famous politician, very strange (and distracting!) when it’s someone like Sheryl Crow or Martha Stewart.

But that strangeness aside, it is an exciting and engaging way to get your kids interested in history. But here is my other major problem with it: it’s way too intense for younger viewers (and even me, part of the time)! I am a bit shocked at the thought of elementary school kids watching it. There is intense violence and gore in some scenes (such as describing the Civil War) and there are some very disturbing and scary scences in other parts, too. My daughter was quite upset about the scene depicting John Brown. If you’d like to use this with anyone under the age of 15, I’d pre-watch it to make sure you think it is appropriate for your family.

The other popular series that is often recommended is Crash Course on YouTube. Crash Course has an entire US History series as well as World History, Chemisty, and much more. They are hosted by John Green (the author, who I think is great) and his brother. The videos are extremely infomative, but there are a few things you should know before you dive in.

First, they are VERY FAST PACED. It is physically impossible to hear every word John Green says, read every caption or graphic, and get every joke while watching the video at regular speed. They are filled with sarcastic asides and cultural references that make the videos tons of fun to watch – yet a bit exhausting. They are appropriate for bright high schoolers, as well as adults who want to brush up on their history (and I guess would be good for college students as well). I think most middle schoolers would find them intimidating.

Secondly, they are a bit liberally biased. That’s fine, but you should be aware of it and be prepared to discuss that with your kids.

If you do choose to use the Crash Course videos, you can find some helpful worksheets and study guides on Teachers Pay Teachers. I’ll discuss that more in my next article about how to teach history.

I hope you found these resources for teaching your teens and tweens about slavery, abolition, and the Civil War helpful! Please comment below if you have more suggestions!

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