Pathways to Freedom: Maryland and the Underground Railroad
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Lesson Plan: Whispers from the Past

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STAGE 1: Identify Desired Results


The Underground Railroad was a secret network organized by people who helped an estimated 60,000 men, women, and children escape from slavery to freedom in the United States during the 19th century. The Underground Railroad provided hiding places, food, and often transportation for the fugitives. People also provided directions for the journey, telling fugitives the safest way to get further north on the dangerous journey to freedom. The Underground Railroad was run by a well-organized network of people who worked together in secret to help slaves escape. The work of the Underground Railroad resulted in freedom for many men, women, and children. It also helped undermine the institution of slavery, which was finally ended in the United States during the Civil War.

Deciding to try to escape slavery was very complicated. Living as a slave was extremely hard. But escaping meant leaving family behind. It also might lead to eventual capture, punishment, and sometimes, even death. In this lesson plan, students will learn about how people made this complicated decision. Students will investigate primary sources to learn more about the Underground Railroad in a group or individually. This lesson can be used to introduce a unit on the Underground Railroad.

In this lesson, students will first complete a pre-reading activity, and then read, analyze and summarize primary source narratives about the Underground Railroad. Students will complete a document analysis chart to assist them with their investigation. They will complete the lesson by writing to inform about the reasons people chose to leave their homes and travel to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Through their analysis of primary sources, students will analyze factors that might change one's impressions of a past event, such as the passage of time. They will also analyze the purpose for writing the documents.

Grade 8 students will be successful with this lesson if they are able to read, interpret and analyze primary source documents and write to inform. Appropriate accommodations for this lesson include annotating the primary sources, assigning the primary sources in a cooperative learning Jigsaw structure, assigning fewer sources, or modifying the culminating writing assignment. Teachers' prerequisite knowledge and skills should include the steps of primary document analysis and background knowledge on the Underground Railroad. Students can work individually or in groups to analyze the primary source documents. If students work in groups, teachers should consider reading ability levels and necessary modifications when placing students in groups. This lesson can be completed on or off-line.

The following primary source documents are available through the Maryland Public Television Pathways to Freedom web site:

  • The Fugitive Blacksmith - autobiography of John Pennington
  • Harriet: The Moses of Her People - biography of Harriet Tubman by Sarah Bradford
  • The Narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglass - autobiography of Frederick Douglass
  • Born in Slavery - Federal Writer's Project (1936-38) interview of Caroline Hammond
  • Slavery in the United States - autobiography of Charles Ball
This is an integrated U.S. History/Social Studies, Reading and Writing lesson.

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