Social History for Every Classroom


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Exploring Slave Life Through Found Poetry

In this lesson students look at primary source images and read short secondary texts to understand slave life.  In the activity, the teacher models and students practice differentiating between different types of text (primary, secondary, etc.) they might encounter in the social studies classroom.  Students show their understanding of a passage's central concepts by selecting words and phrases to compose a "found poem" about the main ideas of the text.  This lesson was designed for struggling readers and ESL/ELL students.


  • Students will be able to describe different aspects of slave life.  

  • Students will be able to discern different types of text (primary, secondary, captions, citations, reading prompts) in a secondary source (or textbook).  

  • Students will select key words and phrases that are central to the meaning of the text.  

  • Students will compose poems about slave life.  


Step 1: Tell students that they will be reading texts and looking at images that describe different aspects of slave life.  Then they will create poems about slave life.  But before they read on their own (or with a partner), the class will read a short text together.  

Step 2: Model strategies for how to read a secondary text.  Pass out pages 1 and 12 from the Doing As They Can viewer's guide.  Before reading, have students identify the different types of texts on the pages: Main text, captions, citations, check-for-understanding question, images.  Review with students that different types of text convey different information.  Remind them that the main text and captions are "secondary sources," meaning that they were not created during slavery.  Tell students that the images are primary sources: they were created when slavery existed.  The captions may include information that is not in the main text.  The images help reinforce the content of the main text.   

Step 3:  Have the students read along silently as the teacher reads the passages aloud.  As they read, students should underline words or phrases that they think are most central to the meaning and content of the text.  The teacher may want to model this strategy by projecting the text on Smartboard or overhead and underlining as you read.  

Step 4: Now students will practice what the class just did together: reading a passage and finding the most important words or phrases that convey the meaning of the text.  For this portion of the activity, students may work independently or in pairs.  To each student/pair, assign one of the following sections of the viewer's guide:

  • In the Beginning (pages 2-3) (May work best for higher-level students, since it has a timeline, secondary source texts, and primary source texts and images.)

  • King Cotton (page 4)

  • Southern Society (page 5)

  • From Dawn to Dusk (page 6)

  • Master's Time, Slaves' Time (page 7)

  • "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" (page 8)

  • Slave Rebellions (page 9)

  • Day to Day Resistance (page 10)

  • Let My People Go! (page 11)

It is okay to have more than one student/pair working on each text.  As the students read and underline, the teacher should circulate to help define unfamiliar vocabulary or identify different types of texts.  

Step 5: Now students will use the phrases and words they underlined to create a "found poem"--a poem that incorporates as many of the chosen key words or phrases as possible with your own words.  The poem should reflect the students' ideas about the passages and the history of slavery.  Suggested guidelines:

  • Words and phrases can be rearranged, they need not be used in the order in which they appear in the original text

  • Words can suggest your point of view and an idea that might not be stressed in the original text

  • Give the finished poem a title

Step 6: Ask students to share their poems with the whole group.  Discussion questions include:

  • What statements or ideas from the readings did the poems reflect?

  • Were many of the key words and phrases the same?  If so, compare and contrast the different ways that people used the same language.

Historical Context

Slavery placed harsh limits on the lives of black men and women. Slaves had to do any work the master ordered. Masters were free to punish their slaves and sell them away from family and friends. Yet even within the rigid confines of slavery, African Americans struggled to assert their humanity. Through religion, music, daily resistance, and especially the family, slaves sought a measure of independence and dignity.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Exploring Slave Life Through Found Poetry,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 1, 2023,

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