Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad
Classroom Resources
about the underground railroad
following the footsteps
eyewitness to history
figure it out
mapping it out
secrets: language, signs and symbols
create a quilt block
living history
underground railroad library
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Teacher Tips for the Pathways to Freedom Website


  • More recent information indicates that prominent researchers have time and again debunked the myth of the quilt code. There is no historical evidence to indicate that slaves used quilts to communicate information along the Underground Railroad. Additionally, many of the patterns and songs highlighted in this section have been shown to originate after the time of the Underground Railroad. We are endeavoring to make corrections to these sections of the site as soon as possible.
  • Check out the Reading Tips and the Teacher Toolbox for strategies and printables to help you use this site with a range of readers.
  • Review this timeline to get an idea of the historical, social, and cultural events that surrounded the Underground Railroad movement.

Use the links below to quick jump to a particular Teacher Tips section:
About the Underground Railroad | Following the Footsteps | Eyewitness to History | Figure It Out | Secrets: Signs & Symbols | Living History | Create a Quilt | Mapping Maryland’s Freedom Trail | Teacher Toolbox

Teacher Tips for About the Underground Railroad
About the Underground Railroad provides a 15-question analysis of the conditions that led to this secretive and rebellious movement, helping students look at some common questions about slavery and escape. The activity serves as an excellent introduction to the important terms and concepts of slave life. It is also useful as a reference for students engaged with other parts of the site.

Students can access the questions in a set order, or read the answers at their discretion. Encourage students to try to answer questions by themselves or in groups before reading the correct answers. Examine their prior knowledge about the Underground Railroad, and how the meanings and ideas in the questions have changed between then and now. Follow up this interactive by asking students what questions they still have about the Underground Railroad or slavery. Use texts and/or online materials to further explore their questions.

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Go to About the Underground Railroad | View printable vocabulary list

Following the Footsteps
Following the Footsteps offers students a unique chance to imagine life as a young slave. It is an interactive story in which the user assumes the persona of a young slave facing the decision to escape or stay in slavery on a plantation. The plantation owner has died and there are rumors that the remaining slaves will be sold south. A series of reader decisions bring the user either to the promise of freedom in Philadelphia, or the terror of a slave auction.

Before beginning this activity, it is important students understand the severity of the situation in this interactive. Review the concepts of slavery and punishment, and the reasons slaves might try to run away. Brainstorm potential hardships escaping slaves might encounter on the Underground Railroad, and what they might do to avoid or escape these problems. As always, you are the best judge of your students ability to deal with this type of activity.

This activity involves reading, looking, and listening. Remind students to explore the image window on the right with their mouse to look for hidden clues. Text boxes will appear when rolling over items like quilts, star formations, and houses. Additionally, the sound component of this activity greatly enhances the overall experience. If the computers you are using do not have sound, or if you feel multiple computers would cause too much disruption, arrange a whole-class walkthrough when the entire group can hear the moving slave hymns and sound effects.

The first time through the activity, it may be advisable to have students choose one path and not go back to retry their decisions. After the first time through, it might be useful to have students describe their different experiences and how it made them feel. If there is time for additional trips, encourage students to explore how different decisions (especially the first decision - to stay or run away) impact their subsequent experiences.

You may find this flow chart useful. It explains the basic structure of this interactive story.

You can use the flow chart in several ways. Here are a few ideas:

A. Before Reading
Activating Prior Knowledge

  • Use the flow chart as a prereading guide to access students' prior knowledge and make connections to Following the Footsteps. Explain the decision-making processes readers will make during reading the site.

    B. During Reading
    Monitoring Comprehension

  • Use the flow chart as a road map for the less skilled readers to 'follow the footsteps' during reading. Readers can check each box as they make decisions and read the sequence of events.

    C. After Reading
    Checking for Understanding

  • Use the flow chart as an assessment for understanding the sequence of events. Omit the text in several boxes and have students complete the sequence chain. This flow chart may also be used by less skilled readers as the basis for writing a summary.

    Your students may want to build on their experience with this activity by completing the rest of the story, explaining what happens to the young slave as the group travels from Philadelphia to Canada.

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    Go to Following the Footsteps

    Teacher Tips for Eyewitness to History
    Eyewitness to History provides a kaleidoscopic view of slavery through five first-person stories written by slaves who escaped bondage, traveling on the Underground Railroad. Students can read and/or listen to these autobiographies, biographies, and interviews. These accounts are all primary source documents, excerpted here to provide a glimpse into the world in which slaves lived before, during, and after their harrowing journeys to freedom.

    Users have the option of looking at short sections of these documents, introduced by an explanatory prompt, or reading/listening to the full excerpt itself. In reviewing the full document, students have access to guiding questions (listed in the left-hand column) to help them more fully explore the document. The questions listed there are keyed to help students know if they can answer the question by:
    • Looking at one portion of the text ("Right There")
    • Searching through multiple parts of the text and thinking ("Think and Search")
    • Expressing their ideas and opinions ("On your Own").

    Some accounts show the gross inhumanity that was an unfortunate part of many slaves' experience. You are the best judge of whether your students are mature enough to handle this kind of information.

    Introduce the activity by talking a bit about primary source documents and their reliability. Talk about factors that might change one's impressions of a past event, such as the passage of time and the purpose for writing down one's impressions of this event. Before beginning the activity, students might want to review the focus question "What were some of the factors people had to consider as they thought about escaping from slavery?" to be sure what their task is. Encourage students to read many accounts before formulating their responses to the focus question. Responses can be oral or written.

    This is an activity that is probably best utilized by students at the eighth grade level. Others may need more support in reading and interpreting these documents. There is some annotation included for each account, but you may need to supply more for your students. Struggling readers or 4th grade students may find it easier to read the excerpts provided instead of jumping directly to the primary source document.

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    Go to Eyewitness to History | View printable vocabulary list

    Teacher Tips for Figure It Out
    In this section, students are asked to look at aggregated data accumulated from census reports in the years 1790, 1800, 1810, 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, and 1860 to answer specific questions related to slavery and Maryland.

    By sliding the bar on the timeline at the top of the page, students can select a specific year, and then click on each county to get data for that year in that location. A demonstration (accessed through the "demo" box) is available throughout the interactive, showing students how to work with the data.

    Students are asked to synthesize information they find, using ThinkSheets that contain open-ended questions to direct their investigations.

    Before your students access the information on a computer, you may want to provide them with copies of the ThinkSheets available to help them think through each question. You might also consider bookmarking the section related to ThinkSheets so students can access them online.

    You may want to encourage students to fully explore each year before moving on to review data for other years.

    NOTE: Because some counties were not formed until later in this period, sometimes the box displaying information will say that no data is available. Please note that an explanation of this appears in the upper right hand corner of the screen when one of these counties is selected. The explanation also explains where students can look for this data. Wicomico County was formed in 1867. Carroll County was formed in 1837. Garrett County was created in 1872.

    To access more information from census records during this period, visit this site maintained by Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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    Go to Figure It Out

    Teacher Tips for Secrets: Signs & Symbols
    One of the most intriguing parts of the Underground Railroad is the complete secrecy within which it was carried out. The routes, the stations, the conductors, and all other elements of this underground system had to be known only to a few. Communication was limited to only those who had to know - escaping slaves and the people who helped them.

    In this section of the site, students can explore some of the secret ways of communicating that those involved in the Underground Railroad knew about:

    Follow the Drinking Gourd investigates a common astronomical symbol (the North Star) and how escaping slaves used it to guide their path to freedom. It also explores the words to the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd," and what its words may have signaled to those traveling on the Underground Railroad. Students can also listen to the song to see what they think about its hidden messages.

    Music allows students to read and listen to spirituals related to the Underground Railroad movement, while they learn about the different ways slaves may have used them. This activity is especially useful for challenged readers.

    The Language of Quilts explores a recent theory that slaves may have used quilts to "talk" to others either before or during their escapes. Drs. Tobin and Dobard believe that slaves displayed quilts in a certain order to signal that an escape was imminent. In addition, they may have sewn quilts to give escaping slaves a simplistic kind of road map for their journey. This theory has been disputed by others. Perhaps your students would like to debate this issue after reading this section of the site.

    Language of the Railroad explores some of the code words people involved in the Underground Railroad used. You may want to discuss with your students the reasons such a code had to be used.

    As a concluding activity, students may want to try their hand at creating a song about the Underground Railroad, making up code words that students in their school could use, or creating their own message about the Underground Railroad using Make Your Own Secret Quilt Message.

    Students in both fourth and eighth grade can benefit from working with the information in this section. However, it does involve a lot of reading. You may want to assign different students groups to explore different sections and then share the information they uncover with the whole class.

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    Go to Secrets: Language, Signs & Symbols | View printable vocabulary list

    Teacher Tips for Living History
    Living History offers students a chance to share stories about their personal connection to the Underground Railroad. It includes a form that students can use to submit written text and pictures that show a personal, school, or community connection to this secretive movement.

    You may want to use this topic as a writing assignment, allowing students to draft and revise their stories before submitting them. In addition, you may want to alert families to this section and encourage them to submit text and/or pictures about their connection to the Underground Railroad.

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    Go to Living History

    Teacher Tips for Make Your Own Secret Quilt Message
    Make Your Own Secret Quilt Message gives students the opportunity to integrate their thoughts about and images of the Underground Railroad as they design and execute a quilt block. The block they design is a representation of their impressions of the people, places, and times that surrounded this highly-organized system that lead slaves to freedom.

    Students drag and drop shapes (triangles, rectangles, and squares) to create a single quilt block representing their thoughts. They can use an eight-color palette to color the shapes as they construct their block. In addition, students should keep in mind that shapes can be overlapped to create other shapes and a wider variety of patterns. Throughout the activity, site visitors can access hints, samples, and demonstrations to help them complete this activity. After they have completed their block, they will be prompted to name it and explain why they chose this block as their symbol of the Underground Railroad. They can then print their work.

    You might want to introduce this activity by talking about different ways in which people communicate using symbols. For example, sailors use a host of color-coded flags on their ships to denote certain things. Motorists all know that a yellow triangular sign means "caution." Your students should be able to offer more examples.

    Quilts use symbolic language to represent various thoughts and ideas. Their symbolism is often identified by a pattern name, such as "Bow Tie" (which looks like a series of bow ties) or "Drunkard's Path." (whose patterns look like the ramblings a drunken person might take). Some scholars think that slaves may have relied on the patterns associated with quilts to symbolize even more. To look more closely at this, students may want to read "The Language of Quilts".

    Some technical tips:
    • The completed quilt will include the block the student created, multiplied many times.
    • Students can place an unlimited number of shapes in one square. If they make a "mistake" in their pattern, they can quickly correct it by covering up the shape with another. Students can also start over again by using the RESET button.
    • You will need a color printer to print students' work in color. If you have a black and white printer, students could color their quilt after printing.
    • Remind students to leave their computer on and at its current page location until printing is complete.

    This activity can be used effectively by both fourth and eighth grade students. Students who think visually will find this activity particularly rewarding.

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    Go to Make Your Own Secret Quilt Message | View printable vocabulary list

    Teacher Tips for Mapping Maryland´┐Żs Freedom Trail
    Mapping Maryland’s Freedom Trail brings basic information about the Underground Railroad to students in a more visual format. Students can explore Geography, Historical Sites, and Important Places to the Underground Railroad in Maryland via hotspots on an 19th century map of the state. Students can also see routes that famous Maryland slaves like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and James Pennington might have taken to freedom.

    To help students understand the interactive map's features, have them complete the "Demo" before exploring. The Demo points out the interactive's main technical features. These include the menu on the right to choose a category, the "zoom in" and "zoom out" buttons to look at details on the map, and the ability to click and drag the map itself to move to different sections. Remind students that important text will appear when they click on a dot, and that they should use the scroll bars on the left text window to make sure they don't miss this information.

    You may want to use this activity as a general introduction to the people and places of Maryland's Underground Railroad before delving deeper in other activities, such as Eyewitnesses to History or Following the Footsteps. Encourage students to explore independently and draw conclusions about why these places, locations, and routes were important to escaping slaves.

    This activity can also be used to help students review and synthesize information about the Underground Railroad they have gathered as they complete site activities.

    This activity is designed specifically with struggling readers and visually-oriented students in mind. Much of the information is similar to the About the Underground Railroad and Eyewitnesses to History sections, though presented in a greatly condensed form.

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    Mapping Maryland’s Freedom Trail | View printable vocabulary list

    We've assembled a variety of tools for you to use to help students of all reading abilities use this site. These tools offer proven strategies and techniques that can help students negotiate and understand different kinds of texts. Some tools have special handouts (called flyers) that you can duplicate and give to students. Click here to access the Teacher Toolbox.

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