Skip to main content

This integrated lesson connects the civic concepts of A People with Contemporary Debates & Possibilities and We the People to the life of George Washington and his varying views on enslavement.  It allows teachers to support students’ ability to engage in the difficult conversations that are necessary to support a diverse democratic society and reflect critical understanding of how our shared history and experiences contribute to contemporary society.

Lesson Narrative (5Es)

This learning experience is inquiry-based and built on the 5E model. Students will be engaged by thinking of initial ideas they have about Washington and slavery. Students will then explore Washington's complex views on slavery by analyzing the primary sources provided in the timeline. They will explain and evaluate their understanding of the content by participating in a class discussion. Finally, learning can extend as students consider the larger context Washington fits into and create written assignments, posters, or clubs that raise awareness about civic issues.

  • This learning experience can be modified to fit a range of student abilities.
  • This learning experience could fit one class session or be extended to fit multiple sessions.
  • This learning experience integrates reading, writing, speaking, listening, and civics learning skills.
  • This learning experience has student timelines that can accompany the lesson or it can be taught solely with the documents within those timelines.


  • Select two items from George Washington’s life timeline (suggest that present diametric complexity). Ask students what they know about those items and why there might be such a large disparity between them.


  • Provide links/handouts to the two timelines—one on the context of slavery and the other on slavery dates in George Washington’s life
  • Designed for student’s adjustment from a presentism lens to evaluate historical figures to a contextual lens—specifically related to George Washington’s complex views on slavery
  • Neither a man of his time or aligned with present day thinking—complex


  • Upon the grounding of agreed upon classroom protocols for difficult discussions of diverse perspectives, facilitate a dialogue based on the Contemporary debates and possibilities civic theme
  • Civic connections questions are also available to frame the discussion around “civic participation” and “ institutional and social transformation”


Our goal is to empower students to use the lessons of Washington to employ civic engagement in their own lives and communities and to engage in appropriate, legal democratic processes. However, we defer to teacher discretion to determine the form of civic engagement that best fits their instructional contexts. Teachers may choose to count the discussion as the culminating activity, or may have students create a final product, including, but not limited to:

  • a written assignment that is narrative, reflective, persuasive, or argumentative;
  • creating posters, public service announcements, art installations, or multimedia presentations to raise awareness about civic issues and responsibility;
  • transposing the learnings from this learning experiences into learning activities to teach younger grades;
  • identifying and/or engaging with relevant local, state, or national stakeholders (community organizations, officials, law-makers, politicians, or traditional media outlets) through letter writing, email, or social media;
  • joining or starting a club or community based organization dedicated to their interests;
  • proposing a new process or creating a technical innovation to address the issue.

Language Usage:

We acknowledge that words have associated cultural and connotative meanings, some of which may be sensitive or negative, especially for students; however, our intention is to provide students with the historical understanding of terms and their meanings as they were used in context. In this lesson, we use the term “African” to indicate persons originating from the continent who were enslaved and transported as part of the transatlantic slave trade. The terms “Negro” and “Black” are used interchangeably to describe the mix of peoples of African descent living in the colonies, including Africans and their American-born descendants. The term “Mulatto” is used to describe persons resulting from the union of mixed heritage, typically children of free white males borne by enslaved black women. The term “Indian” is used as a generic term to describe the peoples native to North America regardless of their tribal heritage or cultural affiliation. As appropriate, we suggest having a conversation with your students to become familiar with these meanings and to make distinctions between these terms and contemporary associations.

Student Portal

Students can explore the timeline to learn more about George Washington's conflicting views and actions towards enslavement.

Explore the Timeline

Civics Connections: Civic Participation

This lesson focuses on the ideas of Contemporary Debates & Possibilities and We the People. Both of these have definitions within the Educating for American Democracy Framework. Here are the specific civics components the framework lays out that connect to this lesson:

9-12 Key Concept: Cultivate an understanding of personal interests, motivations, and decisions as civic agents

Driving Questions:

History: HDQ3.4A. In what ways and to what extent have the diverse people of the U.S. become one nation and faced challenges to that?

Civics: CDQ7.4B. What specific methods have Americans developed for adapting or preserving their society, and what are the strengths and limitations of each as we look toward challenges in the future?

Design Challenge 1: Balancing the Concrete & the Abstract

DC5.1 How can we support instructors in helping students move between concrete, narrative, and chronological learning and thematic and abstract or conceptual learning?

Educating for American Democracy