Train to Freedom
Students explore the challenges faced by Harriet Tubman and the conductors of the Underground Railroad.
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
About this book
As they analyze the life of Harriet Tubman, students learn about the risks taken by conductors and passengers on the Underground Railroad. They also consider what might have been if the movement hadn't succeeded.
- Students will analyze the contributions of the historical figure Harriet Tubman.
- Students will demonstrate an understanding of life on the Underground Railroad by presenting information.
- Construction paper
- If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine
- Harriet Tubman PowerPoint (PDF)
- Map of the United States
- Yellow Post-It notes (one per pair of students )
- Different colors of Post-It notes
- White paper
- Templates for a railroad car (PDF) and engine (PDF)
Set Up and Prepare
- Copy pages from the book to pass out to each pair of students
- Print one copy of the engine car
- Print and copy pages of the railroad car, one for each table of students
- Print, copy, and cut out slides of the Harriet Tubman PowerPoint, one per table
Students should have basic knowledge of what slavery is, and how the north and south had extremely different views about slavery.
Day 1 – Introduction to Harriet Tubman
Step 1: Open the discussion about the purpose of a railroad and a conductor.
Step 2: Ask students if they have any prior knowledge about the Underground Railroad. Show the PowerPoint slide of Harriet Tubman (PDF), then pass out copies of the slideshow scenes out of order (one per table group).
Step 3: Explain to the students they will be working together to place the life of Harriet Tubman in order.
Step 4: Draw a timeline on the board from: Youth -- to --> Adult
Step 5: Call on a student to place the first slide in order on the timeline (use tape or magnet) and continue calling on students to place slides on the timeline.
Step 6: After all slides have been placed on the timeline, mark on the United States map the trail that Tubman followed.
Step 8: Draw on the board a large Venn Diagram, labeling one section "Tubman's railroad" and another section "actual railroad."
Step 9: Ask pairs of students to contrast Tubman’s railroad with an actual railroad by writing their responses on a Post-It note. (All the Post-it notes should be of various colors – ex. blue and pink.) Have pairs come to the board one at a time to read and place their Post-It notes on the diagram in the proper sections.
Step 10: Next, have each pair of students compare the two by recording the similarities on a Post-It note. (Everyone should now have the same color Post-it note – ex. yellow)
Step 11: Lead a discussion by having the pairs come to the board to place their Post-It note difference for Tubman and their Post-It note for a railroad.
Step 12: Wrap up the discussion by asking students how life would have been different if Tubman had not been a courageous leader.
Day 2 – Creating the Train
Step 1: Call on students to share out what they recall about Tubman. Ask students for the definition of the word “underground” and remind them it also means to be done in secret or concealed
Step 2: Pass out copied pages of the book If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine to each pair of students.
Step 3: Have students read the page together and then write a different summary/fact with an illustration on their square piece of white paper.
Step 4: Students now share their summaries and illustrations with the class, taping them to the railroad car after they read it.
Step 5: Students sign their name on the engine car. This represents they are helping lead and conduct the train, and are supporters of equality.
Step 6: Wrap up the activity by having students respond verbally or via writing to the following:
- Tubman’s quote, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and can say what most conductors can’t say. I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
- How would history have changed if Tubman had been caught?
- What would have happened if Tubman had never gone back to help more slaves?
Supporting All Learners
- Pairing readers of various levels allows stronger readers to assist readers with less developed skills.
- Having visual slides of the Tubman’s life and the timeline allows students to associate written text with content.
- Having visual representations of as much of the vocabulary as possible facilitates the connection between text and content.
- Downloading a video of Tubman or the Underground Railroad also provides students with more background of the content.
- Using different colors of Post-it notes helps distinguish the difference between compare and contrast.
Have students complete a biography project on various anti-slavery leaders.
Have advanced students write a compare-and-contrast paper on the attitudes and laws of the North and the South.
Have advanced students research the causes and effects of the Civil War.
Students can have a discussion with their parents on who the parents or grandparents view as current leaders/heroes. Students can bring comments to class to share. Students and parents can discuss ways they can be positive role models at home for their community.
- Each table group puts PowerPoint slides in order.
- Each pair of students records comments for the Venn Diagram.
- Each student completes and shares a summary square for the train.
- Were students on task during the activity?
- Were the groups/pairs divided up appropriately?
- Were students able to place the slides in the correct order?
- Were students able to summarize the pages of the book? Was the text too easy/difficult for some?
- Were the responses to the wrap up questions appropriate?