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Learning Experience/Unit

Underground Railroad Codes in Spirituals


English Language Arts (NYS P-12 Common Core), Literacy in History/Social Studies (NYS 5-12 Common Core)

Grade Levels

Elementary, 4th Grade


Knowledge of code words about the Underground Railroad in African-American spirituals assessed by completing a web worksheet.

Learning Context/ Introduction

Students will listen to and sing several African-American spirituals and learn about the Underground Railroad on a website by National Geographic. They will use the internet to complete a web worksheet about code words and phrases in spirituals.


Three 35 minute class periods

Essential Question

How did African-American spirituals communicate information about the Underground Railroad?

Instructional/Environment Modifications

Preferential seating

Use of aide assistance if needed

Portable CD player

Computer lab with one computer per student


Day 1
Ask students what they know about the Underground Railroad.  Develop the idea, through discussion, that it was neither underground nor a railroad. Emphasize that it was a series of safe houses and people who assisted runaway slaves in their attempts to travel to slave-free states or to Canada.

Read excerpts from the book, If You Lived When there was Slavery in America, by Anne Kamma and published by Scholastic. This book discusses in simple language how Africans were brought to America to become slaves against their will. It cover topics such as where slaves lived, what their family life was like, whether or not they received any education, and how they worked.  It also discusses escape by way of the Underground Railroad.

Write “African-American Spiritual” on the board.  Define spirituals as songs developed and sung by African-American slaves to express themselves and to communicate with each other.  Spirituals were usually based on biblical words or stories. Many times slaves were forbidden to talk with one another for fear they might plan to retaliate against their masters, but singing was allowed.  The songs helped to keep energy going while working in the fields and also gave slaves a way to express their feelings. Pass out spiritual song sheets. Some of the words may have had secret or code meanings, which helped slaves give messages to each other without letting the master know.  Direct students to the words, “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.” These words may have alerted others that a slave was planning to try to escape.

Play the example of “Harriet Tubman/Steal Away,” from the recording, Steal Away: Songs of the Underground Railroad, produced by Kim and Reggie Harris.  Explain that "Harriet Tubman" is a contemporary song about the work of Harriet Tubman; the second song, "Steal Away," is a spiritual and is on their song sheets. Briefly discuss the accomplishments of Harriet Tubman, known as "Moses" to the African-American slaves, who led some 300 runaways to freedom. Show her picture on the National Park Service pamphlet entitled, "The Underground Railroad." Use the map on the pamphlet or a classroom map to show routes used by escaping slaves. Point out major rivers that were important to escaping slaves, such as the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, and the St. Lawrence River (in our area).

Have students look at “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” on their song sheets.  Review the call and response type of singing, where one person leads and the rest of the group answers with a sung phrase.  Explain that this was a good way to teach and learn new songs when people couldn’t read and the songs weren’t written down.  Sing the call or first phrases of each line, while the students answer with “Coming for to carry me home.”  Next, sing a verse of “Go Down Moses” and ask the students to identify the response portion of the song (Let my people go).  The class will sing this song with the teacher singing the call and the students singing the response. Song sheets will be collected at the end of class.

Day 2
Students will meet in the school computer lab.  Direct students to sit next to a partner. Review the definitions of an African-American spiritual and call and response. The students will listen to a recording of “Wade in the Water” and sing the response (Wade in the water).  Discuss how repeated words in a song are very important and ask what special instructions for escape from slavery might the song be suggesting (wade in the water or walk in a stream to help prevent the master’s dogs from picking up your scent and following you.)  Divide the class in half and have them sing the song again, with one-half singing the call phrases and the other half singing the responses.  Everyone will join in on the refrain.

Ask students for a definition of the Underground Railroad.  Give directions to students to log in to the computer and find the National Geographic Underground Railroad website. Working with a partner, they will follow the steps on the website to make decisions about trusting others on the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.   Instruct them to read all the information and try alternative decisions.  Allow about 15-20 minutes for this activity.  (An alternate way to approach this part of the lesson would be to go through the National Geographic website as an entire class, using a computer and LCD projector.)  For those who finish early, have them investigate related information by scrolling down on the information bar in the upper right had corner to the sections on “For Kids” and “Routes to Freedom.” 

When students have completed looking at the Underground Railroad website, have them log out from the computers and take out their song sheets again.  Look at the spiritual, “Go Down Moses” (Let My People Go).  Ask if any student could describe the biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.  Ask who was known as the “Moses” of the African-American slaves.  (Harriet Tubman)  Ask why she was known as “Moses.”  (Because she helped lead many slaves to escape out of slavery)  Instruct the students to sing the response phrase, “Let my people go,” after practicing it with the students a few times.  The teacher will sing the “call” or first and third phrases of each stanza.  Have everyone sing the chorus in unison.  Discuss what Canaan was to the Israelites. (Canaan was the promised land where they would live free  and prosper.)  Ask students about what country would have meant freedom to escaping slaves in the early 1860s. (Canada)

Day 3
Students will meet in the computer lab.  Announce that each student needs to have his or her own computer because today’s worksheet will be completed while working alone. Direct students to log on to the computer.   Direct them to the web page where they will find a link to the web worksheet they will be working on. (The worksheet is available below. Save the worksheet and post it to a website students can access. I used my school webpage.) Give each student a hard copy of the worksheet on which to write their answers.  Direct students to read each quote from a spiritual,  read the question in its entirety, and then click on the accompanying picture to go to a webpage which will help them answer the question. Answers should be written on their hard copy worksheet. After answering the question, they should return to the web worksheet page to start the next question.  The last two questions on the worksheet did not involve going to a website for help with the answers.  For those students who finished early, I handed out review sheets on the lines and spaces of the treble clef, which we had previously studied When they are done with the spirituals worksheet, have students log off from the computer.

Reflections and Feedback

The students were adept at navigating their way through various pages on the web. They enjoyed finding information in a different way, especially in music class. They really enjoyed the CD selection from "Steal Away: Songs from the Underground Railroad" and singing "Wade in the Water" from their music textbook series. Next year I plan to enlarge this lesson by collaborating with a special education teacher in my building. We will talk more about the Underground Railroad, commit some spirituals to memory, and visit sites of safe houses from the Underground Railroad in our area.

"Follow the Drinking Gourd" is another spiritual which could be used in this lesson. I chose not to use it this time, because of controversial online discussions about the interpretation of some of the lyrics and twentieth century word additions to the song. I would consider using it in the future, but would point out discussions of interpretation to the students.

Student Work

Students completed web worksheet
See attached samples

  • Student Sample A
  • Student Sample B
  • Student Sample C
  • Related Resource

    Computer for each student

    CD: "Steal Away: Songs of the Underground Railroad" Produced by Kim and Reggie Harris, Brooky Bear Music, 1997

    CD: "Share the Music," Grade Four, compact disc 5, selection number 18; Produced by Macmillan McGraw Hill School Publishing Company

    Book: If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America by Anne Kamma, published by Scholastic Inc., New York, 2006

    Book: Underground Railroad Official National Park Handbook, produced by the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., 2005 (used for background information)

    Pamphlet: The Underground Railroad, Published by the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior, 2002

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