Lesson Plan

The Underground Railroad

A journey of indomitable human spirit
Darri S.
Senior Director, Education Content Common Sense Education
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Students will be able to...

  • describe key terminology used by participants in the Underground Railroad.
  • infer challenges slaves would have encountered along the Underground Railroad.
  • describe the historical significance of the Underground Railroad.
Social Studies
Grades 6 – 8
All Notes
Teacher Notes
Student Notes

1 Hook

Songs played a significant role in the history of slavery in the United States. From SkySafari, project the constellation of Ursa Major (a.k.a., the Big Dipper), and illustrate how to draw a line from the dipper’s two end stars to the North Star (Pole Star), which forms that end point of Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper’s handle). At the same time, play the song, Follow the Drinking Gourd* – a map song that speaks of the Big Dipper, which points to the North Star and northward – by downloading from a music library or sharing a video found on YouTube. If time permits, play snippets of other spirituals such as Wade in the Water – suggests traveling through water versus land to throw dogs off slaves’ scent – and Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot - thought to be sung to let slaves know when conductors were coming.

(*Note: There are debates over whether or not this song was truly used as a “map” by slaves; regardless, slaves used constellations to help guide their nightly journeys.) 

2 Direct Instruction

Free, Paid

Explain how the Underground Railroad was not composed of underground tunnels, nor was a railroad involved. Watch the video, Underground Railroad, from Shmoop (2:59; Chapter 13, Lesson 4).

Reiterate that the name spoke to the underground resistance after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (preceded by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793). The rail terminology was used as a code of sorts, keeping outsiders confused: “tracks” (routes); “conductors” (guides); “passengers,” “cargo,” (escaped slaves); “stations” or “depots” (hiding spots); “agents” (sympathizers); “station masters” (people who hid the slaves in their homes); “stockholders” (financial supporters who donated to the Railroad); “heaven,” or “Promised Land” (the free states and Canada). Often slaves, with kids in tow, would travel in small groups 10-20 miles per night, taking up to a year to reach freedom. From 1850-1860, over 300,000 slaves escaped via a complicated yet organized network of routes, safe houses, and helpful people. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln’s executive order, the Emancipation Proclamation, demanded the release of all slaves and shifted the focus of the ongoing Civil War.

3 Guided Practice

Have student upload a blank United States map to Skitch. Guide* students to label the map with the following:

  • 4 main routes – loose system of routes 1. North along Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to north 2. South to Florida and Bahamas; 3. West into Mexico along the Gulf; and 4. East along coast Canada
  • 29 states including: Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, DC, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Colorado
  • Mexico, Canada, Caribbean
  • Color-code free states versus slave states
  • Create a key

(*Use the following map from National Geographic as a guide: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/maps/undergroundrailroad/?ar_a=1)

In exploring the Underground Railroad routes, ask students to infer likely challenges (natural barriers such as rivers, swamps, and mountains, and other environmental obstacles such as wild animals, bad weather, lack of food/water) in addition to the constant threat of being caught.

4 Independent Practice

Urge students to walk back through time by creating a collection on HistoryPin. Students can “pin” historic images and add context to depict key terms, locations, and characters: conductor (Harriet Tubman), station/depot, stockholders, cargo, the drinking gourd, the Promised Land, etc. The collection will reinforce the vast network of the Underground Railroad.

5 Wrap-Up

Give students time to understand a piece of US history through the eyes of 14-year-old Lucy King, a slave in Kentucky. They can immerse themselves through the interactive game, Mission Us: Flight to Freedom. After each period of play, ask students to reflect in a journal about their day’s experiences. Use discussion questions and writing prompts from www.mission-us.org needed.