navigate to thirteen or ed online
  Lesson Plans
Catch a Falling Star

Ainsley Adams
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Grade Level
Time Alloment
 Four 45-minute class periods


In the first half of the 19th century, fugitive hunted slaves were taught to look for the North Star as they fled toward free states and Canada, inspired by the song "Follow The Drinking Gourd." Schoolchildren at the elementary and middle school level often take lightly the historic period of the Underground Railroad. Many think that it was some type of mechanical device, since it claimed "stations," "conductors," and "passengers." In fact, this period of United States history saw many slaves fleeing North toward Canada, or South toward Mexico or Florida, to freedom. Slave masters fearing loss of their capital resources – the slaves – made every effort to keep slaves totally illiterate and devoid of an understanding of the geography of their environment. Itinerant workers were sent to the South to teach slaves routes of escape encoded in song.

Through the activities presented in this lesson, students will be called upon to examine the coded messages in the song "Follow The Drinking Gourd," taught to the slaves by Peg Leg Joe, along with the song's links to the Underground Railroad. Students will examine video segments, visit Web sites, and participate in hands-on activities in order to concretize the experiences slaves had on their hopeful road to freedom. This lesson cannot cover the scope of history of the Underground Railroad, but can serve to stimulate teachers and students to explore with deeper understanding aspects of African-American history often omitted in our social studies textbooks.

Learning Activities

Students will be able to:
  • Contextualize the story in the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd"
  • Determine coded messages within the song that led slaves to freedom
  • Examine a map of the U.S. to determine routes of the Underground Railroad
  • Explain how the geography of the routes could have created difficulties for fleeing slaves
  • Make predictions of routes slaves may have taken along the Underground Railroad and the possible dangers they faced
  • Describe the role the Big Dipper played in slaves' road to freedom, and that constellations are patterns in the sky
  • Determine how the slaves found North at night
  • Locate the North Star in the night sky
  • Provide another name for the North Star


United States History Standards for Grades 5-12

Standard 2D
The student understands the rapid growth of "the peculiar institution" after 1800 and the varied experiences of African-American under slavery. The student will be able to identify the various ways in which African-Americans resisted the conditions of their enslavement and the consequences of enslavement.

National Science Education Standards: 5-8 Science As Inquiry

Students will be able to:

  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
    Students should be able to review data, summarize data, and form logical arguments about cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
    Students develop the ability to listen to and respect the explanations proposed by other students.
  • Earth in the solar system.
    Most objects in the solar system are in regular and predictable motion. Those motions explain phenomena such as position of constellations, the day, the year, seasons, and eclipses.

New York State Academy for Teaching and Learning for Social Studies Standards

Standard 1: History of the Unites States

Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in the history of the United States.

Standard 3: Geography
Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of the geography of the interdependent world in which we live – examining people, places, and environments over the Earth's surface.

New York State Academy for Teaching and Learning English Language Arts Standards

Standard 3: Language for Critical Analysis and Evaluation
Students will listen, speak, read, and write for critical analysis and evaluation. As listeners and readers, students will analyze experiences, ideas, information, and issues presented by others using a variety of established criteria. As speakers and writers, they will use oral and written language to present, from a variety of perspectives, their opinions and judgments on experiences, ideas, information, and issues.

New York State Academy for Teaching and Learning Science Standards

Science S1.1
Formulate questions independently with the aid of references appropriate for guiding the search for explanations of everyday observations.

Science S3.2D
Formulate and defend explanations and conclusions as they relate to scientific phenomena.

Science S3.2E
Form and defend a logical argument about cause-and-effect relationships in an investigation.

Media Components


Reading Rainbow #96: Follow the Drinking Gourd

Starfinder #20: The Constellations

Look Up #5: Looking Up at the Stars

Web sites:

National Park Service: The Underground Railroad
This Web site gives a comprehensive insight of the Underground Railroad. By clicking on highlighted portions of a U.S. background map, students are able to read short biographical sketches of African-Americans and their involvement in aspects of U.S. History.

National Geographic: The Journey
This site allows students to perform a simulation exercise in which they are a slave planning an escape to freedom.

The Underground Railroad Site: Routes 1860
This site allows students to view the routes used by fugitive slaves attempting to reach freedom from the slave states.

Timeline of Events: 1750 - 1939
This is an interactive Web site giving students a view of what was happening in U.S. history during the time the Underground Railroad was active.


Per pair of students:

  • Atlas with a physical map of the U.S.
Per student:
  • Pencil and paper
  • Data sheets
For the instructor:
  • A copy of the book
    Follow the Drinking Gourd
    . Winter, Jeanette. Knopf, 1992. ISBN 0679819975.