Harriet Tubman: On the Road to Freedom
An integrated unit honoring the courage of Harriet Tubman
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
The lives of many African-Americans throughout history are testament to strength, courage, and resourcefulness. One of the best-known of these figures is Harriet Tubman, who perservered against great odds to improve not only her own life, but the lives of others. After a harrowing escape from slavery, she returned to the South 19 times and helped 300 other slaves escape.
The story of her life, with its elements of drama, adventure and success, provides a compelling focus of study during Black History Month, as part of your social studies curriculum, or in a language arts unit on biography. However you use it, your students are sure to be inspired by this heroic woman.
Exploring Themes of Slavery and Freedom
The following books are recommended for use with this project:
- Harriet Tubman: They Call Me Moses by Linda D. Meyer (Parenting Press, 1988)
- Harriet Tubman: Guide to Freedom by Sam and Beryl Epstein (Garrard, 1968)
- Go Free or Die: A Story About Harriet Tubman by Jeri Ferris (Carolrhoda, 1988)
Initiate some thought-provoking discussions with these start-up activities:
- Help students understand the evolution of slavery in America. Locate Africa and the United States on the map. Indicate how Africans were taken from their homes and families, and forced to travel by ship to America where they were put to work on plantations. Explain to students that many Americans approved of slavery. There were, however, abolitionists who spoke out courageously against it.
- Create a freedom chart to help students understand why Harriet worked so hard to free herself and others from slavery.
Divide a poster-size piece of paper into four columns. Label the first column Freedom and have students list simple but important freedoms they enjoy. These may include the freedom to be part of a family; the freedom to make friends; the freedom to got to school and learn; the freedom to read books; and the freedom to eat, sleep, and work when they (and their families) want. Label the second column Importance and have the students tell why each freedom is important to them. Label the third column Slavery and have students use this space to describe what happened when slaves were deprived of the basic freedoms mentioned in the first two columns (for example, Slaves could not leave the plantation, Slaves were often sold and separated from their families, etc.) In the last column, labeled Feelings, have the students describe how they would feel if each freedom were taken away from them.
- Freedom involves being able to make basic choices and decisions about life. But it has certain limits; ask children if being free means doing whatever they want, whenever they want. Refer back to the Freedom Chart to brainstorm a list of ways in which some of their freedoms are curtailed (having to go to bed at a certain time, not being able to eat everything they want, etc.). Have them make another list of ways in which even adults'freedom may be limited. Help them draw conclusions about the reasons for these limitations.
Certain Unalienable Rights...
One of America's most important documents is the Declaration of Independence, written nearly 50 years before Harriet Tubman was born. It states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness..."
Help students interpret the meaning of these words. Then, have them read the passage again and decide which four words most symbolize Harriet's ideals.
Free at Last
On December 18, 1865, slavery was officially outlawed in the United States. Harriet Tubman was about 45 years old at the time. Have each child write a diary entry for that day from Harriet's point of view. It might be helpful for them to focus on the following questions.
- How might she have felt when she heard the news? Why?
- What hopes might she have had for the future of freed slaves?
The Story of Her Life
As a class, brainstorm some of the most important events in Harriet's life, starting with her birth in about 1820. On plain paper, make a series of 3-by-4 inch boxes and write or type one event in each box so they are out of sequence. Leave enough room in each box for the student's illustrations. Photocopy the boxes so that each child gets a complete set of events.
Have students cut apart their boxes and put them in order. After checking for the correct sequence, have children draw illustrations in each box and design a cover. Staple the pages together and let students bring home the books to share with their families.
Adapted from the book Literature-Based Seasonal and Holiday Activities by Mary Beth Spann (Scholastic, 1991).