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The Transatlantic Slave Trade
People, Not Numbers Lesson Plan: Bringing 12 Million into Personal Terms
This lesson plan is designed to be used with the overview component of the narrative, The Transatlantic Slave Trade, or with the overview segment of the narrative, The Domestic Slave Trade. It is most effective as an introductory lesson in the study of slavery in the Americas. Statistics about humans provide valuable historical information; but, as the numbers grow larger, they become more impersonal and difficult to comprehend. This lesson is designed to help students forge a compassionate link to the large numbers of people who were the victims of slavery as opposed to thinking of them simply in terms of numbers.
Grade Levels: Middle and high school, grades 6-12
For use with:The Transatlantic Atlantic Slave Trade and The Domestic Slave Trade
Concentration Area:History
Concentration Area:Math
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • The migration and settlement patterns of peoples in the Americas.
  • Elements of African slavery during the colonial period in North America (e.g. relocation of Africans to the Caribbean and North America, the slave trade and "the Middle Passage").
Time required
Approximately 25-50 minutes, up to one class period, depending on the amount of follow-up classroom discussion
Materials needed
Anticipatory Set

  1. Ask students how many pupils are in the classroom when there are no absences. Record the number on the chalkboard. If the number is in dispute, write the range for the largest and smallest number. Then, ask students how many pupils are in the entire school when there are no absences and record the number range. Finally, ask students how many pupils are in the entire school system in their district and record the number range.
  2. Ask students to hypothesize why the certainty over the numbers decreases as the quantity of pupils queried increases. Ask students why it matters that the school or school system treats them as individuals rather than numbers.
  3. Explain that students face a similar problem with statistics in history. When historians turn people into numbers, students are responsible for making the effort to turn the numbers back into people again. If they do not, they lose the essence of the people's lives—something students do not appreciate when it happens to them.

  1. Ask students if they have ever thought about what the number "12 million" represents and if they have ever seen "12 million" of anything.
  2. Direct students to take out a sheet of paper and pencil. Explain that they will have five minutes to list the names of as many friends, family members, schoolmates, and acquaintances in the community (neighbors, teammates, associates in church or scouting, merchants or service providers, etc.) as they can. Reassure students that they do not have to spell the names perfectly, but they should list names as completely and correctly as possible. Once the students are ready, set the clock and tell them to begin writing. At your call or at the sound of the timer, all students should put down their pencils.
  3. Ask students to review their lists to make certain there are no repetitions. Have them write the total number of names on the top of their sheets. Collect the sheets and compute the grand total of names listed by the class.
  4. Divide the number "12 million" by the class total. Explain to students that this would be the number of days they would have to write the same number of names—but entirely new names—each and every day, to record 12 million names. Expressed mathematically, the formula is: 12,000,000 ÷ x = y (number of days.) Divide number of days (y) by:

    1. 180 (or the state-mandated number of attendance days for your school district) to calculate how many school years would be necessary to complete the list.
    2. 365 to calculate how many solar years would be necessary to complete the list.
  5. Ask students to read the overview from the narrative, Transatlantic Slave Trade. As they read, post students' lists around the classroom.
  6. Discuss with students what it would be like if, every day for centuries, people were being pulled out of their lives and communities to be enslaved. Ask them to consider the impact on those who remained behind, the kinds of holes in the fabric of their lives that would be created if every person on even one day's list was torn from their lives forever.

1. Direct students to write either an informal essay or a journal entry from the following prompt:

The colonial archaeologist, Ivor Noël Hume once observed, "Whenever we turn people into numbers and back again, we invariably lose something, and what we lose is life."

Ask them: "As you study the Atlantic slave trade, what can you do to help yourself remember that these were people rather than numbers?"

2. You may ask students to share their ideas orally or to write up some of the best ideas as signs for the bulletin board. Evaluate on a five-point scale (which may be weighted) or five letter-grade rubric as follows:

Grading Elements Points/Grade
No response 0/F
Response is not linked to prompt, shows little insight, offers few ideas, and has many technical problems in writing 1/D
Response is not clearly linked to prompt, shows some insight, provides a vague plan, and has some technical problems in writing 2/C
Response references prompt, shows some insight, provides a general plan, and demonstrates most technical elements of good writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 3/B
Response references prompt, shows originality and insight, provides specifics, and demonstrates technical elements of good writing (spelling, grammar, punctuation) 4/A

Related Works

  • Video

    Hume, Ivor N. Search for a Century: The Discovery of Martin's Hundred Plantation. Produced by Arthur L. Smith. 59 min. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1980. Although the video is not directly related to the topic of the Atlantic slave trade, the excavation of this site was initiated because of an effort to study early slave quarters in Virginia. The assessment-writing prompt derives from Hume's description of the problems forensics laboratories and archaeologists encountered in turning average tissue measurements applied to skeletal remains into accurate portraits of the once living.
Interdisciplinary Links

  • Mathematics and Computer Sciences: Teachers could demonstrate different notational and graphic means of expressing numbers. Students then would express the number "12 million" using each of these methods.
  • Physical Sciences: Collaborate with teachers in the physical sciences to provide students with other illustrations of the quantity "12 million," whether it might be grains of sand, stars, seeds, or molecular combinations.
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