[NOTE: Below are third-party links. Please contact the owner of the website directly if you find a link is no longer working.]

Slave Narratives: Constructing U.S. History Through Analyzing Primary Sources The National Endowment for the Humanities has lesson ideas for grades three through five that use primary sources such as slave narratives to teach aspects of US history.

Tongue-Tied | Teaching Tolerance The Southern Poverty Law Center has a Teaching Tolerance website that has great information for teaching the history of slavery in the classroom.

Slavery and the Making of America | For Teachers | Elementary School Lesson Plan 1 PBS has lesson ideas for elementary, middle, and high school levels inspired by the series Slavery and the Making of America. This content teaches students that slavery was part of the founding of America, dating back to the British colonies (much earlier than pre-Civil War era). Students explore perspectives from that of a slave, runaway slave, slave owner, and British soldier.

Teaching Slavery | Four Perspectives To Get Your Class Talking The US History Scene is a multimedia education website composed of historians and educators from more than fifty universities dedicated to providing students and teachers with easy access to premier digital resources. This link directs to helpful content about teaching slavery to students in the classroom.

Classroom | Underground Railroad | PBS PBS has middle school-appropriate lesson ideas related to the history of the Underground Railroad, inspired by the PBS DVD Underground Railroad: The William Still Story.

Lesson Plans | National Underground Railroad Freedom Center The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located in Cincinnati, Ohio, has lesson ideas for various grade levels on its website about Underground Railroad vocabulary.

Lesson Plans to Accompany the CD Set Entitled Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Freedom, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad The National Park Service has an amazing resource inspired by the songs featured on the CD included with the education materials that travel with this show. Lesson ideas address many of the song lyrics and invite students to listen to the songs and discuss what the words mean in relation to the Underground Railroad.

Third Party Online Reaching Resources Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition features helpful teaching tools such as documents, photographs, and other archival material useful for teaching about the history of slavery.

LESSON IDEA: Plotting a Personal Path

NOTE: This lesson idea was put together for the traveling exhibition Programming Guide for Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad by © 2018 ExhibitsUSA, a national program of Mid-America Arts Alliance. Aspects of this lesson idea are adapted from the PBS Underground Railroad: The William Still Story Community and Educator Resources and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Junior Ranger Activity Book.

Grade Levels 6–8

SUMMARY: Using the photographs and listed Underground Railroad site locations featured in Jeanine Michna-Bales’ photographs featured in Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad (use exhibition labels, checklist, and/or reproductions of images in Michna-Bales’ book), invite students to research each site using Google Maps, and plot the specific locations of each site on a United States Map—highlighting nearby cities, rivers, and other points of interest. Students will learn about various escape routes traversed by freedom seekers throughout the United States and will compare the route illustrated in the photographs in the exhibition to an 1860 map indicating slave and free states and territories open to slavery. Students will read one or several personal narratives from varied freedom seekers for a class discussion and to inspire a personal reflection writing activity.

• Students will be able to define and describe what the Underground Railroad was
• Students will understand various journeys of fugitive slaves as they traveled on the Underground Railroad
• Students will use Google Maps and internet research to locate and plot on a United States map the specific route illustrated by photographs in the exhibition
• Students will research and plot miles between sites, and study cities, rivers, and points of interest near each site using a blank map template and reference map (click here for Resources section of this lesson for template handout and map)
• Students will read one or several slave narratives from A North Side View of Slavery. The Refugee ("Jane Adams" p. 20 and "Rev. Alexander Hemsley" p. 27) or accounts archived in the Library of Congress.
• Students will write an imagined escape plan to freedom as a journal entry (or several entries reflecting the amount of days it might take to travel the distance) using map research and authentic narratives as inspiration for personal reflection

• Access to this website to view the section on the photographs and quotes and/or the publication of Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad
• Access to maps, Google Maps, and the internet
• Suggested reference books (A North Side View of Slavery. The Refugee, etc.) and image titles and locations from the exhibition catalog for Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad. (click here for exhibition catalog)
• Web resources. The Library of Congress has more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of formerly enslaved individuals. These materials were collected in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration. The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has created a website about documenting the American South that features North American slave narratives in book or article form.
• Printed exhibition labels or checklist of the traveling exhibition with titles of the works (locations of Underground Railroad sites)
• Colored pencils, markers, or crayons
• Map worksheets
• Paper and pens for creating imagined journal entries to reflect a desired route to freedom

• One class period to explore and experience the Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad through either the website or through the publication
• One class period to discuss the history of the Underground Railroad, to investigate and study routes of freedom seekers on a map, research and plot specific locations of sites depicted in photographs on a map worksheet using Google Maps, and compare and contrast slave states to free states as a class discussion and give students a writing assignment
• One class period as desired for students to complete additional research and work of imagined diary entries
• One class period to share their writings as a class group by reading them aloud and discussing their imagined escape route informed by research and personal opinion


Step one After looking through the images and quotes from Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad, share with students facts about slavery in the United States and the Underground Railroad.

Enslaved African Americans who sought freedom by escaping were called fugitive slaves. Explain to students that enslaved people had no legal rights—they couldn’t own property, and they could be bought or sold at any time. Slaves could not worship as they chose. It was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write. Slaves could not legally marry. Slaves couldn’t choose their own jobs, received no pay for their work, and were often severely punished if they appeared to exercise the human rights they were denied. Running away, even with the risk and punishment for getting caught, was one way some attempted to escape these conditions.

The Underground Railroad provided a means for helping enslaved freedom seekers escape to free states or out of the country. The Underground Railroad was not a train, did not have actual train tracks, nor was it a system of underground tunnels. The term Underground Railroad reflects the efforts of enslaved individuals to gain their freedom through escape and flight and the assistance of individuals who were opposed to slavery. Escaping enslaved life was dangerous—if caught, a person could be severely beaten, even killed—and often risked the safety of others in the group and/or those left behind. Individuals who helped others to freedom were also subject to fines and/or imprisonment.

There were four main routes that freedom seekers generally followed: North along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to the northern United States and Canada; South to Florida and refuge with the Seminole Indians and in the Bahamas; West along the Gulf of Mexico and into Mexico; and East along the seaboard into Canada. These routes were not “roads” nor were they marked—often people on the route had to zig-zag or backtrack to throw off the scent of tracking bloodhounds and to outwit bounty hunters looking for escaped slaves. Individuals who decided to escape had to travel at night, look for good hiding places during the day (corn fields, barns, and swamps were good at concealing freedom seekers), and could not take many belongings or supplies with them. It was also risky to encounter other people on the route to freedom, as it was unknown who was “friendly” or against slavery and could be trusted to help, and who would turn in freedom seekers to authorities. Information and directions for safe houses (stations) and helpers (conductors) were passed along orally, as word-of-mouth was the primary means of finding safe passage for travelers on the Underground Railroad. Spirituals and traditional African songs often conveyed messages to others through lyrics. The lyrics to the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” for example, communicated to the escaping traveler that is was time to leave his or her situation.

Step two Using Google maps online, have students plot each approximate location described in Jeanine Michna-Bales’ Through Darkness to Light photographs. Use the exhibition checklist for site location reference. Have students use the blank map worksheet (in the references section of this lesson) to draw the locations, making a line from the general area of one “stop” to the next. Encourage students to draw in additional information on the map including rivers, landmarks, and/or cities. Have students compute the approximate distance in miles between each site. Discuss with students how many days it might have taken on foot to get from one place to another.

Step three Invite students to compare general Underground Railroad routes to the map worksheet, indicating which states were free and which were states where slavery was legal. Ask students what direction(s) they would travel if seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad. Have students read (or read aloud to them) several narratives from former slaves who described their passage to safety and freedom and escape from slavery. (see the resources section of this lesson for links and references)

Step four Invite students to plot and imagine an escape route from a slave state to a free state (or out of the country). Using maps for reference, create imagined journal entries detailing the geography and imagined conditions one might experience en route by travelling on foot. Use real-time miles of the route to estimate how many days it might take to get from point A to point B to craft each day’s journal entry. Include weather conditions, time of day, imagined feelings, hardships, concerns, etc., informed by experiences communicated by real individuals who recorded their journeys.

Step five Have students share their journal entries in front of the class to compare and contrast routes and imagined experiences.

(grade six example)

English Language Arts

Reading Standards for Literature
Key Ideas and Details
• Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.
• Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

Craft and Structure
• Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text; including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice on meaning and tone.
• Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot.
• Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.

Writing Standards
Text Types and Purposes
• Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
• Engage and orient the reader by establishing a context and introducing a narrator and/or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.
• Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, packing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters.
• Use a variety of transition words, phrases, and clauses to convey sequence and signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another.
• Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to convey experiences and events.
• Provide a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.

Production and Distribution of Writing
• Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
• With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revision, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach
• Use technology, including the internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
• Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate.
• Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources; assess the credibility of each source.
• Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Speaking and Listening Standards
Comprehension and Collaboration
• Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
• Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
• Follow rules for collegial discussions, set specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.
• Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.
• Review the key ideas expressed and demonstrate understanding of multiple perspectives through reflection and paraphrasing.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
• Present claims and findings, sequencing ideas, logically and using pertinent descriptions, facts and details to accentuate main ideas or themes; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
• Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Language Standards
Conventions of Standard English
• Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Knowledge of Language
• Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use
• Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 6 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
• Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
• Use common, grade-appropriate Greek or Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word (e.g., audience, auditory, audible).
• Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses). Both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
• Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (.e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
• Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
• Interpret figures of speech (e.g., personification) in context.
• Use the relationship between particular words (e.g., cause/effect, part/whole, item/category) to better understand each of the words.
• Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., stingy, scrimping, economical, unwasteful, thrifty).