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Common Core: lesson planning with the Oxford African American Studies Center

By Sarah Thomson

In 2012, 45 US states, as well as the District of Columbia, adopted and began implementing the new Common Core State Standards in K-12 public schools. In history and social studies classes, the Common Core Standards emphasize critical thinking and analytical reading and writing skills. Most of the Standards require students to use information from primary source documents to complete a variety of skills-based tasks.

The guide below provides history teachers with examples of how resources from the Oxford African American Studies Center (AASC) can be used to create lessons that align with these new standards. Founded by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., AASC has been the leading online reference site in the field of African American studies since 2006. With over 10,000 reference articles—supported by hundreds of primary source documents, maps, and other tools—the site provides the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available to researchers, educators, and students.

For more information regarding the specific reading and writing Standards for each grade level, please refer to the Common Core Standards website.


Following is an example of how middle and high school history teachers could use resources from AASC to plan a lesson aligned with the Common Core Standards. This lesson about the Fugitive Slave Act is designed for a unit on Sectionalism or Abolitionism within a US History course.

Which Standards should I use?

When creating lessons and units within the new Common Core framework, the first step for most history teachers is to select the reading and writing Standards that correspond to the skills and content to be taught. Before deciding which Standards to embed within the lesson, however, the teacher might want to see which of AASC’s available resources are related to the lesson’s specific content.

The primary source documents on AASC’s website relating to the Fugitive Slave Act include text from the law itself, publications from abolitionists in response to the law, and arguments in support of the law. Because students will be asked to read each text and use evidence from the source to answer central questions about, and examine arguments pertaining to, the Fugitive Slave Act, some of the relevant standards include:

  • Reading Standard One for history/social studies [CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1]: “Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.”
  • Reading Standard Six for history/social studies [CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6]: “Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.”

Theoretically, each lesson should contain at least one writing Standard in addition to one or more reading Standards if teachers require students to write in the classroom on a daily basis. Standards applicable to this lesson include the following for history/social studies:

  • Writing Standard One for history/social studies [CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.1a]: “Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences the claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.”
  • Writing Standard Nine for history/social studies [CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.11-12.9]: “Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.”

Which AASC resources should I use?

Next, the teacher must consider which texts — primary and secondary source documents, images, graphs, maps, etc. — correspond to the content and will allow students to practice and master the skill(s) outlined in the selected Standard(s). Because the Common Core Standards emphasize skill over specific content, teachers can select culturally-relevant resources that correspond to their students’ needs. AASC resources give teachers the ability to include a variety of perspectives in the classroom.

As discussed above, the Oxford African-American Studies Center has a number of resources related to the Fugitive Slave Act. In order to access these resources, navigate to the Oxford AASC homepage, click on “Browse,” then “Primary Sources.” Teachers can complete a keyword search for “Fugitive Slave Act,” or simply look through the available resources. The following primary and secondary sources will be used in this lesson:

Teachers may want to consider adapting these sources for younger or struggling readers, particularly in the lower grade levels. Refer to the lesson Personal Narratives as Advocacy Tools: Efforts to End the Transatlantic Slave Trade for examples of adapted primary source documents that include word banks for students.

What questions should I consider?

Most history lessons revolve around one or more key historical questions, often called ‘Essential Questions.’ In order to determine which questions to ask, the teacher should thoroughly review each text the student will be working with and look for patterns, contradictions, and major themes. Consider the following: Which questions will allow students to practice the skills described in the selected Reading and Writing Standards for History/Social Studies? Which questions will engage a student’s critical thinking, and require responses that can be supported with evidence from the documents? Which questions do not necessarily have “right” or “wrong” answers? After reviewing the resources above, students will investigate the following questions in this lesson:

  • How did the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increase support for the abolitionist movement?
  • How does Ward’s argument against the Act contradict Webster’s argument in support of it? What tools do both authors use to convince their respective audiences?
  • How did the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increase division between the North and the South?
  • Was the Fugitive Slave Act a good or bad law for America?

How could I structure my lesson?

There are many different ways a teacher could effectively structure a lesson in order to accomplish the goals and tasks described above, and this guide does not purport to lay out a scripted lesson structure. However, when introducing challenging texts it is important for the teacher to explicitly model strategies for reading critically and performing the assigned task. Below is a suggested outline for how a lesson could proceed, with clear opportunities to activate students’ prior knowledge on the topic and model the desired skill(s). The outline also gives students a chance to practice the task both with support and independently.

I.   Activating Prior Knowledge

As a warm-up activity, ask students to create a word map for the word “fugitive,” listing examples of other associations they have with the word, or where they might have heard the word previously.

II.   Building Additional Background

The television program American Experience recently aired a special entitled The Abolitionists on PBS that includes a thorough explanation of the Fugitive Slave Act. Students can access this video clip online.

III.   Teacher Modeling

A.   Introduce the first document, the Speech by Samuel Ringgold Ward in Response to the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), that the teacher will use to model the specific task or reading strategy. The teacher should display a copy for modeling, and preferably each student should have an individual copy to reference during the modeling process.

B.   The teacher should read through the document aloud, explaining her/his thinking process while highlighting or noting key information that could be used to answer one of the Essential Questions, such as “How did the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increase support for the abolitionist movement?” The students can do what the teacher does using their own copy of the source. The class could then discuss the matter, with teacher support, and try to formulate a response to the question using evidence from the text.

IV.   Guided Practice

Place students in pairs and introduce the next document, Speech by Daniel Webster in Defense of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (1850). In pairs, students should read through the document and follow the same process modeled by the teacher. Review as a class and incorporate additional evidence from this source in the class discussion.

V.   Independent Practice

Students will work independently to re-read and compare Daniel Webster’s and Samuel Ringgold Ward’s speeches. They will follow the same strategies modeled by the teacher and practiced with a partner in order to answer the following Essential Questions: How does Ward’s argument against the Act contradict Webster’s argument in support of it? What tools do both authors use to convince their respective audiences?

VI.   Closing

As an exit ticket, final class discussion, or homework assignment, students should respond to the question, “How did the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increase division between the North and the South?”

Sarah Thomson is a former North Carolina public school teacher and a current Ph.D. student in Teaching and Teacher Education at the University of Michigan.

The Oxford African American Studies Center combines the authority of carefully edited reference works with sophisticated technology to create the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available online to focus on the lives and events which have shaped African American and African history and culture.

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