Lesson: Introduction/Follow the Drinking Gourd

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Lesson Objective

By completing the activities the student will explore the nature and implications of the Underground Railroad as it relates to the slaves.

Lesson Plan


·         W 5.10 Use a variety of prewriting strategies to generate, select, and narrow topic

·         W 5.17 Use technology to improve/enhance writing

Background information:

The American folksong Follow the Drinking Gourd was first published in 1928. The Drinking Gourd  song was supposedly used by an Underground Railroad operative to encode escape  instructions and a map. These directions then enabled fleeing slaves to make their way north from Mobile, Alabama to the Ohio River and freedom. Taken at face value, the "drinking gourd" refers to the hollowed out gourd used by slaves (and other rural Americans) as a water dipper. But here it is used as a code name for the Big Dipper star formation, which points to Polaris, the Pole Star, and North.

In the ensuing 80 years, the Drinking Gourd played an important role in the Civil Rights and folk revival movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and in contemporary elementary school education. Much of the Drinking Gourd's enduring appeal derives from its perceived status as a unique, historical remnant harkening back to the pre-Civil War South – no other such map songs survive. But re-examining the Drinking Gourd song as history rather than folklore raises many questions. And the Drinking Gourd as it appears in roughly 200 recordings, dozens of songbooks, several award-winning children's books and many other places is surely not "traditional." The signature line in the chorus, "for the old man is awaitin' for to carry you to freedom," could not possibly have been sung by escaping slaves, because it was written by Lee Hays eighty years after the end of the Civil War.

What were the dangers of riding on the Underground Railroad? http://www.ih.k12.oh.us/es/4/cinci/undergro.htm

The most feared danger was being caught. If you were caught you would be flogged and branded. If your conductor was caught he/she would be hanged or imprisoned for life. The least feared danger was getting sick. It would slow you down and you would have to stop more often . You could die. The other danger was being eaten by animals like alligators, boars, and snakes. The only time you were totally free was when you were in Canada. You were only partly free in the northern states.

Instructional Procedures:  How will I…?

…gain students’ attention?

1.     Turn off the lights in the classroom

2.     Play music fitting the time in the background (music can be found on itunes by searching for Underground Railroad).

…recall prior relevant information?  Make connections to prior learning?

1.     Review slaves role in the Civil War

2.     Review and discuss the Underground railroad with the students – remind the students it was not an actual railroad. While the students are working through the webquest the lights should be down and the music should be playing to help them understand and get a feeling for what the underground railroad was like - you are building the mood for their quest. Remember that slaves traveled on the Underground Railroad at night.  As the students work through the webquest the teacher should circulate around the classroom discussing with the students the choices they are making on the webquest and ask the students why they are making those choices.

Begin webquest - http://www.nationalgeographic.com/railroad/

….present new material?

1.     After the students have finished the webquest pass out a copy of the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" to each student.  The students will be using this song as a base for their journal entries.  There are four distinct stanzas of the song and each relates to a leg of the journey on the Underground Railroad for slaves.  The students will be writing a journal entry for each stanza of the song - totaling 4 journal entries (My students will type their journals on a computer, but if you are having your students handwrite their journal entries have them use a sheet of white paper - one of the publishing activities is to make the paper look old).  Explain to the students that the song was written in code to keep the passage on the Underground Railroad a secret from slave owners.  Point out to the students that the song is really a map for the slaves to follow to get to freedom.  As you explain and "break the code" of each stanza of the song - have the students take notes, on a sheet of notebook paper or on the song sheet they were given, about what each stanza means for their reference when they are writing their journal entries.  They should keep their notes in their writing notebook so they may reference the meanings of each stanza while they are writing their journal entries. 

The students will be responsible for all of the attributes of a historical fiction essay which we will go over in detail in the next lesson.  Today's lesson series is to help the students get into character and understand the look and feel of what they will be writing about.

The song and its translation are as follows taken from the following website http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/ltc/special/mlk/gourd2.html:

2.     The First Stanza:

When the sun comes back and the first quail calls,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom,
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

 "When the sun comes back" means winter and spring when the altitude of the sun at noon is higher each day. Quail are migratory bird wintering in the South. The Drinking Gourd is the Big Dipper. The old man is Peg Leg Joe. The verse tells slaves to leave in the winter and walk towards the Drinking Gourd. Eventually they will meet a guide who will escort them for the remainder of the trip.

Most escapees had to cross the Ohio River which is too wide and too swift to swim. The Railroad struggled with the problem of how to get escapees across, and with experience, came to believe the best crossing time was winter. Then the river was frozen, and escapees could walk across on the ice. Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the South to the Ohio, the Railroad urged slaves to start their trip in winter in order to be at the Ohio the next winter.

The students will have to write a journal entry as if they are leaving the plantation on their journey north toward freedom.  Because most slaves left in winter they will need to start their journey during those seasons as the song references.  There first journal entry will document how they are feeling as they set out on their journey.

3.     Stanza two:

The river bank makes a very good road,
The dead trees show you the way,
Left foot, peg foot, traveling on
Follow the Drinking Gourd.

This verse taught slaves to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north looking for dead trees that were marked with drawings of a left foot and a peg foot. The markings distinguished the Tombigbee from other north-south rivers that flow into it.

The students will write about their experiences when they come to the Tombigbee River and find the dead trees with the markings on their journal.  This will be journal entry number 2.

4.    Stanza 3:

The river ends between two hills,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
There's another river on the other side,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.


These words told the slaves that when they reached the headwaters of the Tombigbee, they were to continue north over the hills until they met another river. Then they were to travel north along the new river which is the Tennessee River. A number of the southern escape routes converged on the Tennessee.

Again the students will write their journal entry about what happens when they come to the TN River.  They can embelish this part with a lot of fiction about meeting up with other slaves on the Underground Railroad because this is a point where many slave routes met.  This will be journal entry 3.

5.     Stanza 4:

Where the great big river meets the little river,
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is awaiting to carry you to freedom if you
follow the Drinking Gourd.

 This verse told the slaves the Tennessee joined another river. They were to cross that river (which is the Ohio River), and on the north bank, meet a guide from the Underground Railroad.

This final stanza is freedom.  The students should write their experiences on this leg of the journey.  They may wish to write this experience in the past tense as a slave that is now free and finishing up their journal.  The student should thoroughly explain their freedom and what they are doing now.

…assess performance????

After discussing the song as a class have the students Think, Pair, Share with the person sitting next to them.  Have the students discuss their ideas and thoughts of the Underground Railroad and have them work together to develop their ideas about their characters for their essay.  The teacher should circulate around the classroom to listen to discussions and offer input.

Level of Bloom’s Taxonomy:


·         Discuss

·         relate


What worked well?:

This lesson was very engaging for the students and I think turning off the lights and playing the soft music in the background had the greatest impact on the students.  Understanding that the song really was a secret map was inspirational to the students and the jumping off point for most of their journal entries.  The students were able to get into character through the use of the webquest as it “showed” them the journey the slaves would have to take.

What would I change?:

I changed this lesson plan to reflect the changes I made based on last year.  I would be more thorough in my explanation of the map(the song) and very detailed in each section.  I like the addition of the youtube video because it has a picture of the big dipper on the video and I think that is another important visual the student’s need to have as they are writing about their journey.  I also added the think/pair/share because the students need to immediately begin to brainstorm and bounce their ideas off of each other and begin to formulate their narratives and this will give me a way to assess the student’s understanding immediately of what we have discussed – prior to seeing their written brainstorming.

Lesson Resources

Underground Railroad Webquest
Underground Railroad Dangers
Description of Follow the Drinking Gourd
follow the drinking gourd   Reading Passage
Historical Fiction Lesson 1 plan   Other


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