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From the Heroic to the Personal

As one of our most stirring narratives of enslavement and freedom, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography draws on many of the same dramatic and persuasive techniques as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. They both use strong contrasts to heighten moral and narrative tension, they refer to and mimic the spirituals sung by slaves, and they cite Biblical imagery and precedent to bolster their pleas for reform. Separated by more than 100 years, they speak to different situations—Douglass to slavery itself, King to the need for civil rights as a correction to slavery’s aftermath of segregation and prejudice. Yet, having students read these texts in tandem suggests ways for them to investigate their own experience with prejudice.

What follows is a ballad writing exercise for upper elementary to high school students and adults. It should take two or three days, depending on how familiar the groups are with Douglass’ Narrative. Whenever possible, students should read the Narrative in full before beginning the exercise, but if time or reading ability is limited, teachers might have them read excerpts. The students could write individually, in pairs, or larger groups.

The Ballad Form

A ballad is essentially a narrative poem. Sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, its verses alternate with a chorus that can gradually change to emphasize the developments in the story. Many literature textbooks contain ballads that teachers can use as examples. Folk music provides another source of ballads (such as “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” a ballad about the Oregon Trail) as do other compositions (Stephen Foster’s “I’m Nothing But a Plain Old Soldier”). Hymns sometimes use a ballad-like form too, when the verses recount events in a narrative, and the repeating chorus proclaims general themes.

For our purposes here, the ballad is a good form: the chorus can contain the stirring phrases from a speech or story (here, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Douglass’ Narrative). And the verses can carry the student’s own experience with discrimination based on prejudice of many kinds, from racism and sexism to ageism and disabilities, looks, or religious and ethnic differences.

The sequence below involves eight steps, but you should feel free to modify the sequence.

Step One:

Discuss the ballad from with students. The, down the left side of the board, write the following scheme:


The “A” stands for the chorus, which the class will practice writing together. And the other letters stand for verses. Explain that each verse can describe something different or can tell a story from start to finish.

Traditional ballads use four-line stanzas that have rhyme and fairly regular rhythm (often iambic pentameter). For modern ballads created or collaged out of public and historical texts, however, students should feel free to bend the rules of the form, write verses and choruses of varying lengths, and forgo meter and thyme. It’s difficult to find rhymes when collaging choruses from prose works, and thyme and regular meter sometimes lead to awkward syntax and clichéd language. At the same time, though, it’s a good idea to retain the basic shape of the ballad, alternating choruses and verses, with the choruses showing some repetition.

Step Two:

Read one or all of the student ballads about discrimination printed below. These ninth grade writers chose to take the assignment in their own directions, which is wonderful. In making their choruses…