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Lesson Two: Generating a student-created Document Based Question

Small groups of collaborating students will examine the Slave Narratives of the Federal Writer's Project as a basis for developing a student-created Document Based Question. The final outcome of this activity will be for each group of students to offer a documentary perspective on one or more aspects of the nature of slavery in the ante-bellum United States. As a result of this activity, students will:

  • Experience the process and wrestle with the same issues that historians must confront when undertaking an examination of the nation's past.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the nature of slavery by documenting from primary and secondary sources those selections which inform a historical question about the nature of slavery.


Informational Content:

Students will examine a number of text documents for information relating to the experience of slavery in the United States. Specifically, students will search for first hand accounts that will offer clues to the answer of one or more of the following historical questions:

  • What sorts of jobs did slaves actually do?
  • Is there any evidence that slaves were physically abused?
  • In what ways if any did slaves actively or passively revolt against the slave system?
  • Was there a hierarchy or status ranking among slaves?


    • Institutions such as slavery have profound and varying effects on individuals.
    • Historians must continually make judgements about the credibility of an individual's memory. Recollections of personal experiences may fade or change with the passage of time, while the skill, personal characteristics, and bias of an interviewer may prejudice the respondent's replies.


    • To work with primary sources.
    • To select relevant material from a complicated, puzzling, or perplexing text.
    • To present a carefully crafted and thoughtfully organized project.


The New Deal Network and the University of Virginia's American Hypertext Workshop offer a number of selections from the more than 2000 Ex-Slave Narratives compiled during the life of the Federal Writer's Project. Today most of the narratives are to be found in the many volumes of The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, edited by George Rawick and published in the Greenwood Press, 1979. The Annotated Index and a similar guide at the University of Virginia's site will link you to specific narratives.

An Overview of the Activity:

Students will work together in groups of three or four to compile a total of approximately twelve to sixteen selections from documents related to the slave experience in the United States. Each of the documents will be pertinent to furthering student understanding of a selected issue related to slavery. When the documents have been compiled they will be thoughtfully organized and presented as a documentary interpretation of the chosen issue. Teachers desiring a more explicit model of a Document Based Question may wish to consult the AP exams in history created by the Educational Testing Service.


Teachers might begin by selecting one of the narratives to show to the class as an example of the kind of text with which they will be working. Lead students through a discussion about the value of using primary sources in investigating the past while also cautioning them regarding the issues involved in using interviews such as these. Prepare them for the language they will encounter and which may take them by surprise. Consider that the prevailing standards of civil rights and the atmosphere of multiculturalism which prevail in the 1990s were not the same as those of the pre-Civil Rights 1930s. Students should also be reminded that many of the subjects of the ex-slave narratives were well into their 70s or 80s at the time of the interview; that they were in many cases quite young when they experienced the events they describe; and that the socio-economic and racial background of the interviewer and subject were often different. Teachers might offer such questions as:

  • How would these factors influence the credibility of the interview?
  • Should historians ignore these sources knowing that some of these circumstances may have affected the outcome?
  • How do historians make decisions about who to believe and how much to believe?

Review the four historical controversies about slavery listed under the Goals (above) and which have occupied the attention of professional historians. Suggest that students will work in groups to try to find evidence that will inform one or more of these controversies. Remind them that they will not be responsible for finally resolving the issue, but rather to offer evidence that would apply to our understanding of it. In fact, it is possible that they may even locate and use contradictory evidence.

Show them an example of what an exemplary DBQ might look like. Emphasize that their effort should reflect their best work and that, since others will be working with the DBQ that they create, the presentation of their materials should be neat, with clean, clear visuals, and their question intelligible. You may wish to work together with them to outline the standards which will be used to evaluate their final DBQ project.

In groups of three or four, students should decide on a work plan for how they will proceed. Each group of students should decide on a preliminary draft for a question that will guide their research. In addition to the text-based ex-slave narratives, students may wish to locate visuals (such as photographs, drawings, or political cartoons) that would contribute to their project. The teacher may wish to hold each individual student responsible for locating a minimum number (perhaps no less than four) documents. In addition to the slave narratives presented here, students may be directed to resources available in the school library or to other sites such as Professor Steven Mintz's Guide to Online Resources Concerning Slavery or History Matters for additional resources about slavery on the Web.

After taking a reasonable time for their individual research, students should once again gather in their small groups to examine the documents they have discovered (More research may be indicated if there is an insufficient number of documents or if there is too much repetition). Students should select from eight to ten of the most suitable documents to incorporate into their DBQ. The text documents should be edited so that they are no longer than five or six sentences to a paragraph in length.

Instruct the groups to begin to organize and arrange the selected documents for final presentation. Each document should include a brief and appropriate caption or title and the necessary bibliographic information. If the technology is available, this might be done by scanning the visuals and using word processing software . If unavailable, then students should carefully photocopy the visuals and neatly cut and paste the final documents into their project.

After the groups have had a chance to complete their work and the teacher has had a chance to review each of the projects, ask student groups to exchange DBQs with one another. As a final assessment of their understanding of the nature of slavery, the teacher may wish to ask individual students to write an answer to the question posed in the DBQ of another group.

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