One of the most impactful texts of the abolitionist movement, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a first-person account of one African American man's unthinkable journey from slavery to independence in the 17th century. To help students better understand the context in which Frederick Douglass's narrative is written, teachers should discuss slavery in America (the Underground Railroad, the Fugitive Slave Acts, the abolitionist movement, slave codes, etc.) prior to the assignment of reading from the text. Once students have a firm understanding of the history, the narrative will reinforce and actualize all they have learned.

As a nonfiction work, the narrative can be taught as a historical text, an autobiography, and/or an example of persuasive rhetoric. In what ways does Douglass appeal to his readers? How does his writing aim to persuade individuals to join the abolitionist movement? Students should consider which scenes conjure the greatest amount of sympathy in readers and why.

Teachers can also discuss Douglass' value for education and literacy—how does Douglass's education aid in his escape from and life after slavery? Do educated individuals have an advantage in today's society also? Students will recognize the shift in Douglass's self-esteem as he learns to read—he gains a sense of self-respect and racial pride, despite his harrowing circumstances. How has America's understanding of humanity changed since Douglass' time? In what ways can America's efforts for equality (for any people) still be improved?

1. Summarize Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass relays a first-person account of the horrific discrimination and torment African American slaves faced during the 1800s. The narrative follows Douglass as he serves a number of different owners—each cruel in his own way—and pursues an education. Douglass's longing for freedom leads to his eventual escape from captivity and his later involvement in the abolitionist movement.

Content Warning: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass contains racial slurs and violence.

2. Identify Objectives for Teaching Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

  • Trace Douglass's thirst for knowledge and discuss how the acquisition of this knowledge impacts his quest for freedom.
  • Define persuasive writing and examine the appeals Douglass makes to gain support for the abolitionist movement.
  • Identify the ways Douglass's literacy provided him with an advantage over other slaves.
  • Observe Douglass's acceptance of the Christian faith, and his disdain for Christian slaveholders' hypocrisy.
  • Discuss the differences between slavery on plantations and slavery in the city.
  • Compare Douglass's expectations of life in the North with his actual experiences there.
  • Reflect on the philosophical and ethical questions concerning slavery.

3. Pinpoint Key Facts and Literary Elements

Key Facts

  • Length: 96 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1040
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-11
  • Publication Date: 1845

Literary Elements

  • Allusion
  • Apostrophe
  • Autobiography
  • Persuasive Writing
  • Pun
  • Sarcasm
  • Superstition

4. Understand Themes and Motifs

  • Freedom — After dreaming of freedom his entire life, Frederick Douglass makes his fantasies a reality when he finally flees captivity and escapes to the North.
  • Race — After dreaming of freedom his entire life, Frederick Douglass makes his fantasies a reality when he finally flees captivity and escapes to the North.
  • Education — Douglass recognizes that education is a powerful instrument in the acquisition of freedom and independence.

5. Explore Related Works

Theme of Freedom

Theme of Race

Theme of Education

6. Employ Films & Other External Resources

7. Consider What Your Students Will Love

  • The honesty and detailed reality of Douglass's narrative
  • Learning about an important part of American history

8. Anticipate What Your Students May Struggle With

  • The advanced vocabulary
  • Dealing with the harsh realities of our country's past

9. Order Resources from Prestwick House:

Resource Format
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Paperback Student Edition
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Complete Teacher's Kit Student Edition
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.