Lesson Plan

Incident at Harpers Ferry: Slavery and John Brown

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
State Standards:
State:  West Virginia              
Subject:  Social Studies           
Grade Level: 8th

Check off State Standards: SS.8.H.CL3.1
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


In this lesson, students will share their thoughts on slavery, examine how our country dealt with this institution, consider how both pro-slavery elements and abolitionists looked at slavery and why, and learn a little about John Brown’s early life - in particular, his activities out in Kansas in the years 1855 – 1857.

Students will then be able to answer the following essential question:
What was slavery like in the antebellum United States?


John Brown was brought up in a strict Calvinist environment, in which he was taught that slavery was a sin. Even with a difficult personal life, including loss of his first wife and little success as a businessman, Brown set out in 1855 to do something about a practice he had always detested – slavery. What was the institution of slavery like in our country? What did Brown do in Kansas? Is it ever okay to use violence to bring about needed change? 

In the “Incident at Harpers Ferry: Slavery and John Brown” lesson, students will review how slavery developed in North America, and why the institution grew in the years leading up to the Civil War. They will then look at John Brown’s life, up to 1859, particularly the time he spent in Kansas in the mid-1850s.

This lesson is divided into two parts, each taking about 40 minutes to complete. Although a class doesn’t have to complete both parts, it is highly recommended, as the second builds off of the first.   


Reserve computers with internet access – At least one for every four students, preferably one for every pair.

Make a copies: one copy of the “History Detective: Slavery in North America” per student and one copy of “John Brown: Just the Facts” per student.

Print off one copy of “Rounds” and cut up each statement into slips.

Decide whether or not to pre-plan mixed-ability groups.


Information about John Brown for the students

Download John Brown: Just the Facts

This will be cut up into separate slips of paper and handed out to volunteers to read in front of the class

Download Rounds

This is a research document for teams to complete

Download History Detective: Slavery in North America

Lesson Hook/Preview

Write on the board the following statement: It is okay to use violence to bring about needed change? 

Ask students to write 1-2 paragraphs responding to this prompt.



1. Explain that today they will be learning about slavery in the United States and one man who tried to end slavery through violent means. By the end of class today, they will need to decide whether they think John Brown was justified in using violence to try and end slavery.

2. Divide the class into small groups of 4 students each, and if available, go to the computer lab (or make use of the computers in your classroom). If you have enough computers available, have each team use two computers, so that 2 students are using one computer. Each team can either work together as a whole team, or, even better, divide the questions between the two pairs.

3. Hand out the “History Detective: Slavery in North America” Research Questions.

4. Give the teams 5 minutes to determine their own research questions.

5. Then, give the teams 15 minutes to do some research and answer as many questions as they can. Some of the answers may be hard to determine, but encourage the students to do their best to answer all of the questions.

6. As a team, the two pairs within each team should then share their answers. Allow a few more minutes for this activity.

7. Once the teams have completed their research and discussion, return to the classroom to finish up the lesson.

8. Go over the questions in the classroom, and see what the teams came up with.  Ask the students what surprised them the most.


  1. Explain to students that now that they’ve learned about the facts about slavery, it’s time to learn about the real people who were enslaved.
  2. Ask for 7 – 9 volunteers to read aloud in front of the class. Have them form a line facing the rest of the class and give each student one of the pieces from the “Rounds.”
  3. Ask the students in front to read their pieces to themselves to make sure they’re comfortable reading them. Help them with any words or pronunciation.
  4. When all the students in front are ready, explain to everyone that they are about to hear excerpts from Southern newspapers from before the Civil War. Some of what they’ll hear is a bit strange, and some of the words they’ll hear are words we don’t use anymore. Tell the students that they’ll talk a bit about what they hear, then ask the first student up front in the line to read his/her piece.
  5. Ask the rest of the students to close their eyes as they listen to the excerpts and visualize what is being read.
  6. Now explain to all that the students are going to hear these “voices” of the some 4 million slaves at the time of the Civil War in a different way. The student at the right end of the line will read his/her piece, and when he reaches the name on his piece, he will finish reading, and the person to his left will begin reading his/her piece. Thus there will be an overlap in the reading as this process continues right to the last person at the left of the line.
  7. Ask the students to open their eyes. Students should write or draw whatever they were feeling on a piece of blank paper.


  1. Now it’s time to consider John Brown, and his life up to 1859. Before doing this, however, ask the students if they have any questions based on what they’ve done so far, and perhaps also re-pose the question: Is it ever okay to use violence to bring about needed change? Or, before discussing Brown, ask the students what changes they would like to make in their world. What would they like to change about their community? Or their state? The country? The world? From that, lead them into a discussion of what John Brown wanted to change.
  2. Give the students “John Brown: Just the Facts.” Ask the students to circle the three most important facts about John Brown.
  3. Change the statement on the board to the following statement: John Brown was right to use violence to bring about the needed change to end slavery.
  4. Ask all students that agree with this statement to go to one side of the room and students that disagree with the statement to go to the other side. They may also stand in the middle based on how strongly they agree or disagree with the statement.
  5. Ask students to share their reasons for their placement along the spectrum.


Slavery: A condition of forced labor.

Abolitionist: A person who wants to get rid of a practice or institution, especially slavery.

Compromise of 1850: This is a set of five separate bills over the status of slavery in the new territories acquired during the Mexican-American War.

Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: This is a law that divided the territory west of the states of Missouri and Iowa and the territory of Minnesota into two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska.

Dred Scott Decision, 1857: The Supreme Court case where a black slave sued for his freedom and was denied on the grounds that a slave was not a citizen and therefore could not sue in federal court.

”Bleeding Kansas" – The period of violence that took place during the settling of Kansas Territory.

Supports for Struggling Learners

Planned mixed-ability groupings

Read out loud all documents as a class, prior to individual assignments

Additional Resources

John Brown's Raid, National Park Service History Series, Harpers Ferry Historical Association, 2009

Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz

Contact Information

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Last updated: January 19, 2018