A Hands-on Learning Activity
This lesson is easily customized to your needs and objectives. Be sure to modify it to fit your classroom demographics and age group so the tone of the lesson is appropriate. Ten pages of detailed directions and student handouts are included in each Cotton Cleaning Lesson.
Each student gets a cotton sample to hand clean cotton to experience the difficulties of removing the seeds prior to the invention of the cotton gin
1. Students enter class to a modern version of the slave spiritual “Cotton-Eyed Joe” playing. It is playing loud and it is a version that they recognize from the radio and school dances. Students will instantly wonder why this song is playing; just deflect their questions to preserve the surprise. A version of this song can be obtained through iTunes.
2. Explain to the class that today they will simulate one small aspect of slavery. Take some time to explain how their slave experience will in no way be anything like the real thing. Be sure to discuss how the main objective of the lesson is to develop empathy, not to recreate slavery. Explain to the class that they will experience no fear, no pain, no threats, nor any of the many others negatives of slavery. At the end of the class they will go free like most slaves never did.
3. Show the class a small amount of cotton (don't let them touch it yet and keep the rest hidden). Explain that since this is their first day as a slave, that they will have to be tested. Explain that every slave was “tested” on their first day and that their “test” will involve picking and cleaning cotton. Proceed to have a discussion on the emotions one might feel during those first moments as a slave. Ask why a slave would need to be “tested”.
4. After the discussion, distribute the reading “Picking Cotton” to the class. Explain to the class how the words they are about to read were written by a real person who really experienced a “first day” as a slave (with older students use the term primary source). Explain that nothing is fictional about what they are about to read.
5. Proceed to read “Picking Cotton” together as a class. The teacher's edition contains specific prompts and details necessary for step five of the lesson.
6. Distribute the handout “The Cotton Gin – Eli Whitney's Patent Drawing”. Hand to each student their individual portion of raw cotton. This handout can be either read before or after cleaning the cotton. At your chosen time, instruct the class to work as fast as they can to clean the debris (leaves, cotton boll shell pieces) and seeds out of the cotton. Instruct them to make three piles on their desk. One pile for pure, clean cotton, a second pile of seeds (which would be used the next planting season and for animal feed), and debris. Walk around the room and inspect the clean cotton piles for impurities and have the students rework the pile as necessary. Remind students that before the cotton gin was invested, there was no other method of cleaning cotton than by hand. Ask the class if they think there would be a “test” for cleaning cotton as there was for picking cotton.
7. Conclude with a discussion on the affects of the cotton gin on slavery, the Industrial Revolution and American history.
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