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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

By Frederick Douglass

Teacher Guide by Bridget Baudinet

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our Middle School ELA Category!

Student Activities for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Include:

The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was written, as the title page announces, by Frederick Douglass himself and published in 1845. More than 250 years later, the narrative still remains a powerful work, both for the vivid window it provides on the practice of slavery in the American South and for its eloquent defense of human rights. The narrative recounts Douglass’s life story from his birth to his escape from slavery around the age of 20. It reads both as a personal testimony and a carefully crafted argument against slavery. As such, Douglass's autobiography makes a strong supplement to both history and literature classes.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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Douglass’s narrative is an example of a captivity narrative, a common literary genre in the 18th and 19th centuries. Captivity narratives were generally written in first person and included accounts of abduction by slave catchers, pirates, Native Americans, and others. Beginning in the 18th century with accounts like Olaudah Equiano’s well-known 1789 autobiography, the slave narrative became the largest sub-genre of captivity narratives. Many slave narratives were criticized by white readers at the time of their publication as unrealistic fabrications. Some readers found the abuses described too horrifying to believe. Others insisted that former slaves could not be trusted to tell the truth about slavery. Frederick Douglass, writing largely for a white audience, does his very best to establish the legitimacy of his story by using, as far as possible, actual dates, names, and locations. Douglass’s narrative became the most widely read slave narrative in the antebellum United States and contributed to the momentum of the abolitionist movement in America. For more information about slave narratives, see gilderlehrman.org.

An essential component for most slave narratives was the slave’s freedom. Few slaves had the education, leisure time, and permission necessary to craft lengthy autobiographies. Though Douglass’s narrative builds to his escape from very early on, it does not provide details of the escape. While this omission deprives the reader of an exciting conclusion to the story, it was necessary for the safety of Douglass’s helpers and future runaway slaves. Douglass’s refusal to reveal his method of escape is a powerful reminder of the climate in which Douglass wrote in 1845. Even revealing as much as he did (his own name and the name of his master) forced Douglass to relocate to Britain for two years following the publication of his narrative. The details of his escape remained secret to the public until the publication of his updated autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881. For students interested in these details, a summary of his escape can be obtained at history.com.

Following his escape, Douglass went on to career as an abolitionist writer and orator, founding his own newspaper, The North Star. After the Civil War, he continued to fight for justice as a public servant. Many of Douglass’s other writings, including letters and speeches, can be found here.


Essential Questions for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  1. What role does education play in Frederick’s quest for freedom?
  2. To what extent is freedom of the mind distinct from freedom of the body?
  3. What arguments does Douglass use to persuade his readers that slavery is wrong?
  4. How can literature affect social justice?
  5. Why is Douglass’s story still important today?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


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Douglass’s narrative is more than an interesting account of his difficult life. Written two decades before slavery was outlawed, the narrative was intended as a powerful argument against slavery. In making this argument, Douglass employs a number of effective rhetorical devices, including the appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos. Storyboarding can help students concretely identify examples of these and demonstrate understanding not only of Douglass’s argument, but also of the craftsmanship behind the argument. For this three-square storyboard, have students identify and depict an example of each of the three Aristotelian components of rhetoric. Below each depiction, they should explain their reasoning and/or include other written examples as space allows.


Ethos, Pathos, Logos in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

LOGOS

Douglass makes a convincing argument due to his well-written, logical account. He uses sophisticated vocabulary along with specific, verifiable names and geographic locations. He writes fairly and gives credit where it is due in order to avoid accusations of unjust bias.


PATHOS

Douglass describes the cruel beatings slaves received in vivid detail. His eloquent language inspires pity in the reader. His accounts are most powerful when he describes witnessing the abuse of others as a terrified child. He writes, "No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose...I was quite a child, but I remember it. I shall never forget it whilst I remember anything."


ETHOS

Douglass's narrative begins with a preface by well-known abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and a letter from abolitionist Wendell Phillips. These respected men act as witnesses, testifying to Douglass's good character. Douglass also builds his credibility by refusing to believe in superstitions and depicting himself as a hard-working, intelligent, church-going Christian.


A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Rhetorical Devices

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows examples of ethos, pathos, and logos from the text.


  1. Identify one example of each rhetorical strategy: ethos, pathos, and logos.
  2. Type the example into the description box under the cell.
  3. Illustrate the example using any combination of scenes, characters, and items.


Ethos Pathos Logos Template

Example

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The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Mythbusters

One of Douglass’s main goals throughout his narrative is to debunk a number of claims slavery supporters commonly used to justify slavery. Douglass chooses his topics carefully in order to respond to popular misconceptions. Storyboards can help students identify and share these disproven myths that Douglass uses to strengthen his abolitionist argument. To do this, students will make a T-chart storyboard depicting the pro-slavery myths Douglass attacks in the lefthand column, contrasted by depictions of the reality Douglass explains in the righthand columns. Students can accompany the storyboards with explanations in their own words or specific quotations from the narrative.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Mythbusters

MYTHREALITY
  • Slaves' frequent singing means they are happy and content.
"The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears."
  • Most slaves don't mind slavery. They report that their masters are kind and living conditions are good.
"The slaveholders have been known to send in spies among their slaves, to ascertain their views and feelings in regard to their condition...[slaves] suppress the truth rather than take the consequences of telling it."
  • Slaves cannot handle freedom. They spend their few vacations in foolishness and dissipation.
Over the Christmas holidays, "the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess."

A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Mythbusters

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Summary


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A common use for Storyboard That is to help students create a plot diagram of the events from a story. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of the plot, but it reinforces major events and help students develop greater understanding of literary structures.

Students can create a storyboard capturing the narrative arc in a work with a six-cell storyboard containing the major parts of the plot diagram. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the story in sequence using: Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.



Example Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Plot Diagram

Exposition

Douglass is born sometime around 1818 and grows up as a slave on cruel plantation in Maryland. He sees his mother a handful of times before she dies, and he grows up hungry, cold, and unloved.


Conflict

Douglass is enslaved for life and becomes increasingly unhappy about this reality.


Rising Action

At a young age. Douglass is transferred to the family of Hugh Auld in Baltimore where he learns to read and develops a hatred of slavery. Due to a series of deaths and inheritances, Douglass is moved back and forth between Baltimore and various other locations, eventually ending up under the ownership of Thomas Auld in St. Michael’s, Maryland.


Climax

The turning point in Douglass's life occurs when he fights back against the vicious slave breaker Edward Covey. By standing up for himself, Douglass gains a sense of self-respect and an increased desire for freedom.


Falling Action

Douglass plans to escape from Mr. Freeland but is betrayed and imprisoned. Eventually he ends up back with Hugh Auld in Baltimore. Here he works as a ship caulker and earns a small amount of money he hopes to use in a second escape attempt.


Resolution

Eventually, in 1838, Douglass succeeds in escaping to New York City. He marries Anna Murray, a free woman who followed him north from Baltimore, and begins his life as a free man.



Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Plot Diagram

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Separate the story into the Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
  3. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the story components.
  4. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.
  5. Save and submit the assignment. Make sure to use the drop-down menu to save it under the assignment title.



Plot Diagram Template

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass TWIST


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that examine Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, and Theme. This activity is referred to with the acronym “TWIST”. In a TWIST, students focus on a particular paragraph or a few pages, to look deeper at the author’s meaning.



Using an excerpt from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, students can use storyboards to bring to life this close reading assignment. The sample TWIST storyboard below is based on the passage from Chapter 10 in which Douglass fights Edward Covey. Another suggested passage is one early in Chapter 7 in which Douglass learns to read and describes the effect this has on him.


TWIST Example for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


Show Excerpt

T

TONE

Triumphant: Douglass is filled with exultation and pride
W

WORD CHOICE

resistance, determined, freedom, manhood, self-confidence, triumph, gratification, satisfaction, glorious resurrection, heaven, rose, defiance
I

IMAGERY

rekindled the expiring embers of freedom, the tomb of slavery, the heaven of freedom
S

STYLE

Douglass moves from a matter-of-fact description of the fight into an emotional reflection. The lofty diction and figurative language of his meditation reflect his soaring spirit.
T

THEME

Through Douglass’s intense emotions, he conveys the message that freedom is as much a mental state as a physical one. Restoring self-confidence is the first step in achieving freedom.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass TWIST

Example

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Student Instructions

Perform a TWIST analysis of a selection from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Remember that TWIST stands for Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, Theme.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Choose any combination of scenes, characters, items, and text to represent each letter of TWIST.
  3. Write a few sentences describing the importance or meaning of the images.
  4. Finalize images, edit, and proofread your work.
  5. Save and submit storyboard to assignment.



TWIST Template

Example

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Character Map


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As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a book, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Characters

  • Frederick Douglass
  • Mr. Covey
  • The boys in Baltimore
  • Mrs. Auld
  • Mr. Hugh Auld
  • Douglass’s Grandmother
  • Colonel Lloyd
  • Mr. Freeland
  • Mr. Ruggles

Douglass Character Map

Example

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Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters.


  1. Identify the major characters in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and type their names into the different title boxes.
  2. Choose a character from the "1600s to 1800s" tab to represent each of the literary characters.
    • Select colors and a pose appropriate to story and character traits.
  3. Choose a scene or background that makes sense for the character.
  4. Fill in Textables to answer the questions.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.


Frederick Douglass Character Map

Example

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Character Trait Square

For a shorter activity, consider using single storyboard squares to have students depict Douglass’s important character traits. Students will identify a character quality that stands out to them and depict a scene through which Douglass exhibits this quality. Students can explain their reasoning in a text box below the image, or can include an accompanying quotation from the narrative.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Character Trait Square

Loyal Friend

For Douglass, the hardest part about running away is leaving behind his close friends in Baltimore. The thought of being separated from them almost makes him stay behind.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Character Trait Square

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