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Lesson Plans
Catch a Falling Star
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Prep for Teachers

Prior to teaching this lesson, bookmark the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom.

Prepare the hands-on element of the lesson by:
  1. Handing out copies of the song "Follow The Drinking Gourd" (Data Sheet #1)

  2. Handing out maps of the U.S. on which students will draw possible slave routes. (Data Sheet #3)
When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

Introductory Activities: Setting the Stage

Step 1:

This lesson opens with the students constructing a graphic organizer: the KWL Chart. This activity is advised in order to assess, at the onset of the lesson, student understanding of the use and function of the Underground Railroad.

Tell your students that they are going to construct a KWL Chart. The K section will list "What Do I Know About The Underground Railroad?" The W section will list "What Do I Want To Know About The Underground Railroad?" At the end of the lesson, students will fill in under the "L" section, "What Have I Learned About The Underground Railroad?"

Step 2:

Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to listen carefully to the story “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” On Data Sheet #1, students should write their interpretation of the first part of the song, "When the sun goes back and the first quail calls/Follow the drinking gourd/The old man is waitin' for to carry you to freedom/Follow the drinking gourd." Read the book Follow the Drinking Gourd to your students. PAUSE reading the book when you get to this part of the song and discuss student ideas. (Acceptable answers include – Birds, such as the quail are migratory, moving south in winter, and back north in spring and summer. As these birds are observed on their "fly-ways" or migratory routes, Peg Leg Joe tells the slaves it is time to move by following the symbolic drinking gourd. He tells them that some arrangement has been made, a guide, an old man would be waiting to direct them to the next step in the quest for freedom.)

Step 3:

Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them how was it possible for the slaves to know what was an acceptable escape route even having knowledge of the location of the North Star. Continue reading from the text until you come to the second part of the song, "The riverbank will make a very good road/The dead trees show you the way/Left foot, peg foot traveling on/Following the drinking gourd."

Again, PAUSE the reading of the story in order to give the students time to record their interpretations. (Acceptable answer: Peg Leg Joe teaches the slaves that as they walk along the river's bank to look for his symbol, a left footprint adjacent to a peg leg print. This symbol informed the slaves which river they should follow as only that route had the marked symbol.)

Step 4:

Continue to read the story until you get to the third part of the song. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking the students what they think Peg Leg Joe means when he teaches the slave the third part of the song, "The river ends between two hills/Follow the drinking gourd/There's another tree on the other side/Follow the drinking gourd." STOP reading the story when you reach the third part of the song and discuss student answers. (Acceptable answers: Joe tells the slaves that they will eventually reach the source of one river, between two hills. As they get to the end of one river, there is another they must be ready to cross.)

Step 5:

Read on until the last part of the song. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking the students to name the great big river and the little river that the slaves followed north to freedom. "Where the great big river meets the little river/Follow the drinking gourd/The old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom/If you follow the drinking gourd." Discuss students’ answers. (Acceptable answers: slaves followed the Tennessee River until it joined the very wide Ohio River, where on the far bank, they would meet another guide from the Underground Railroad who took them north to the free states or Canada.)

Please note that the escape to freedom often took over a year to accomplish. Peg Leg Joe encouraged the slaves to begin their travel in the winter. This fact enabled the slaves to walk across the frozen waters of the Ohio River.

In open discussion, ask your students to consider the following questions relating to the flight and plight of the slaves. Students should record their answers on Data Sheet #2 and be prepared to defend their answers.

What would be the advantages or disadvantages for slaves traveling at night? (Advantage: possibility of not being detected by the patrollers. Disadvantage: not being able to see Peg Leg Joe's symbols on trees.)

Where would slaves take refuge during the daylight hours? (In barns, hidden in the tall grass, reeds or bushes, in safe houses.)

Consider the advantages or disadvantages of weather and geographical conditions on the rate slaves could travel from one region to another? Consider the possibility that some slaves may be traveling with family. (Advantage: ability to walk across frozen rivers. Disadvantages: trapped by swamps or bogs, slowed by hill climbing, wide rivers to cross, no transport.)

How could slaves eat on the escape routes? (Raided farms, helped by Quakers, abolitionists, and free Blacks.)

Step 6:

Tell your students to this point in the lesson, they have learned some geographic information that could have provided obstacles to the fleeing slaves. Ask your students what these obstacles could have been (hills, mountains, wide rivers). Ask the students to draw possible slave escape routes on their maps of the U.S., starting from one of the slave states (such as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North or South Carolina, Virginia, or Maryland) and ending at the Canadian Border. Students should keep in mind the possible obstacles that the slaves faced.

Tell your students that they are going to log on to The Underground Railroad Site–Underground Railroad Routes 1860 at Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to compare their escape routes with the historical version found at the Web site. (The Web site shows students four possible escape routes: North along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers; West along the Gulf of Mexico and into Mexico; South into Florida to live as refugees among the Seminole Indians; Along the eastern seaboard into Canada.)

There are several reasons why these four possible escape routes were the most popular. These states had river boundaries, and this allowed the slaves the possibility of travel by some form of river transport. The refugee slaves also tended to use areas that were easier, known to them or more secretive to the patrollers and their dogs. Remember that Peg Leg Joe left coded marks on trees and mentioned to the slaves that they should use the riverbanks as the quicker routes to freedom

Learning Activities

Step 1:

Insert Reading Rainbow #96: Follow the Drinking Gourd into your VCR. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them under what conditions the peoples of Africa came to America. START the video at a scene of a ship with a flag flapping in the breeze anchored at a dock and a nameplate reading "hosted by LeVar Burton" appears on the screen. PAUSE the video when the screen shows two hands, possibly a mother and child, separating. Ask students what the conditions were like in the Middle Passage. (Slaves were kept in shackles in the belly of cargo ships. For months they had little or no air, and no room to move. The ship's hold was dark. Sickness and death abounded. The Africans missed their families, their villages, and their homes.) How did that make these people feel? (Degraded, treated less than human, not dignified.)

Step 2:

Ask your students to predict four possible circumstances that happened to the Africans after their auction. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to check their predictions against what they hear on the video segment. PLAY the video from its previous PAUSE until you hear the song "Follow The Drinking Gourd," and the title of the text appears on the screen. STOP the video. (Acceptable answers include: they were sold as property to the highest bidder; families were separated; Africans were bonded to the plantations; they worked from sun up to sun down, always tired and thirsty; Sunday was the only day of rest, but at the master's behest. Despite such hardships, slaves built new families and new communities. Children learned stories, games and dances of their people. Music was the language of their greatest joy and deepest sorrows. There was always the hope that someday they or their children would be free.)

Step 3:

Insert the video Look Up #5: Looking Up at the Stars into your VCR. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them what the ancestral Africans were able to see in the night sky that allowed them to link the constellations to aspects of their daily life. What are constellations? PLAY the video from the segment that begins by showing the word "Constellations" on the screen. STOP the video when the stars that make up the Big Dipper appear on the screen. To CHECK understanding, simply ask your students to tell you anything new they have learned about constellations from the segment of video. (People have found patterns among the stars and imagine pictures in them. These star pictures are called constellations. Students could say constellations are groups of stars that seem to form a picture. There are eighty-eight constellations. The position of the constellations seems to change at different times of the year. This is based on the Earth's revolution/orbit around the sun. During the year the Earth travels through a band of twelve constellations known as the Signs of the Zodiac.)

Step 4:

It is very important for your students to know that people across the world also saw patterns in the stars of the night sky. This allows your students to look at segments of this lesson from a multicultural perspective. Insert Starfinder #20: The Constellations into your VCR. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to listen carefully to the upcoming video segment and find answers to the following questions. How did the slaves know which way pointed North? How can one find the North Star in the night sky? Is there another name under which the North Star can be found? START the video as the woman presenter with the night sky in the background states, "In the 1800s, before the Civil War, African-American slaves escaped to freedom under the cover of night... today on Science Links." PAUSE the video when the narrator states, "The Big Dipper revolves so closely around the North Star it never goes below our horizon." A picture of the Big Dipper revolving around Earth's North Pole appears on the screen. (The sky was their map and compass; they followed the Big Dipper or the Drinking Gourd and the North Star, for they knew if they walked straight toward that star, they would be heading due north; The North Star is easy to find in the night sky. It is always in a straight line from the outer edge of the bowl of the Big Dipper. The North Star is also known as Polaris.)

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to identify how peoples of the world utilized the constellations and to record their answers on Data Sheet #5. PLAY video from the previous pause point. STOP the video when the woman narrator states, "As autumn approached, the hunters killed the bear and its blood dripped to Earth onto the leaves of the trees turning them red." An autumn scene appears on the screen. CHECK for student comprehension. (Acceptable responses include: the English saw it as a plow; medieval peoples of Europe saw it as a wagon; in China it was a chariot; the Hindus of India saw it as seven wise men perched in the sky. Before calendars, people used the position of the Big Dipper to help them keep track of the seasons. The Iroquois and Nic-Nac Indians of North America saw the Big Dipper as a bear being chased by three hunters.)

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

Ask your students to log on to the National Geographic Underground Railroad Web site at Explain that this Web site is a simulated "Be a slave or not be a slave" activity. Should a slave seek to escape or stay on the plantation? Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to try the on-site simulation activity in two ways, trying Yes, the slave wants to escape and then No, the slave wishes to stay on the plantation. In the “Yes” simulation, Harriet Tubman will tell them how to follow the North Star to freedom. Harriet guides the slaves across a bridge on the Choptank River, and they find friends in a place called Delaware. Slaves see a hitching post and a lantern which means a safe house. The last slide shows escape routes based on Harriet Tubman's actual journeys, and informs the player that escape to freedom could have taken anywhere from a period of about two months to a period of about a year given weather conditions. The "No" simulation activity really highlights the major concepts to be learned: some slaves seized the opportunity to be free unmindful of the dangers they faced, while many others fought for their freedom from within the plantation.

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

Have your students write letters to the ancestors of slaves describing their emotions, the hopes and courage gained by reading accounts of the travels of the fugitive slaves.

Suggested Reading:

Follow the Drinking Gourd. Winter, Jeanette. Illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. Hopkinson, Deborah. Illustrations by James Ransome. Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Clara hears two slaves talking about how they could find the Underground Railroad if only they had a map. From scraps of cloth she begins to sew a map of the land. One day when her quilt is complete, she will follow its path to freedom.

The Patchwork Quilt. Flournoy, Valerie. Illustrations by Jerry Pinkney. Publisher: Dial Books.
Tanya loved listening to her grandmother talk about the patchwork quilt as she cut and stitched together the pieces of colorful fabric, which all fit together to make a quilt of memories.

Harriet and the Promised Land. Paintings by Jacob Lawrence. Publisher: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.
One of America' most prominent African American artists turns his genius to the inspiring story of Harriet Tubman. Striking rhythmic verse conveys the urgency of Harriet's mission as she risked her life to lead her people to freedom.

The Black Snowman. Mendez, Phil. Illustrations by Carole Byard. Publisher: Scholastic Inc.
Jacob and his brother make a snowman from the dirty city snow. The boys wrap the snowman in a cloth they find. However, the scrap is really a Kente, an African storyteller's shawl, which has magical qualities that the boys soon discover. (This book can be used to motivate the Kente Chromatography Activity)

Select a slave state and calculate through the mathematics of map scale how far that state is from Canada.

Given the fact that a person can walk at about 8 to 10 minutes a mile, how long would it take a slave to go the distance between a slave state and Canada?

Compare this travel distance to traveling by car, boat, or plane.

Construct graphs to show this relationship.

Research the culture of the Ashanti peoples of Ghana. From a story about fugitive slave escapes, create a map, using symbols, directional arrows, and geographic landforms to depict the journey.

Create geometric quilt patterns similar to those used by slaves to carry their coded messages (See the text Hidden In Plain View: A Secret Story of Quits and the Underground Railroad. Tobin, Jacqueline L. and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D. Published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc. New York.)

Community Connections
  • Communities such as Peekskill, White Plains, and Rochester in New York have sites linked to the Underground Railroad. Take a field trip to one of these sites. Find out: Who originally lived at these sites? What conditions encouraged these people to be good Samaritans to the slaves? Where did they hide the slaves? How long did the slaves stay at these sites? What happened to the slaves beyond their stay? What if they knew the patrollers were nearby? Did the slaves come with a family? Take a digital camera on the field experience. Prepare a slide Hyperstudio or PowerPoint presentation of your findings.

  • Visit the archives of your local newspaper to find actual accounts of the period of slavery in the U.S. or in your local area. Analyze these stories to look for bias. Who helped the escaping slaves? What fate befell those who helped? Get a group of your friends in your class to role-play these stories.