Dickinson College / Gilder Lehrman Institute

Author: samantharaphael

Teaching the Underground Railroad

When I first started teaching US history six years ago, the questions I always got when I started teaching the Underground railroad were the following:

So is the Underground Railroad really a railroad?

Why was it all underground?

My biggest goal in teaching the underground railroad is trying to dispel the misconceptions that students have.  Over the years, I have refined my teaching of the Underground Railroad, but one of the challenges has been time.  Usually my teaching of the Underground Railroad comes at the end of the year, when I am pressed for time and have so much to get through.  Last year, I found an amazing website that is both educational and fun for students examining the underground railroad.  It allows the students to get out of the classroom and use technology.  The website is is from Scholastic: http://teacher.scholastic.com/activities/bhistory/underground_railroad/index.htm 

I like this website because it is geared towards students, but also provided great worksheets that you can print out for the students to use.  The students follow the path of the slave from slavery to reaching freedom and the challenges they face.

The first year I used this website it took about 3 days to complete all the worksheets.  This past year, I modified it so it took a period and a half and offered the Harriet Tubman webquest as extra credit.  I highly recommend using this website and the worksheets.

In the end, the students understand that the Underground Railroad is not a railroad nor is it completely underground.  The best part about this though is that it is student centered.


Using Wordle or Tagxedo in the classroom

I cannot wait to use this in my classroom.  I think this would be a great anticipatory set for students to be introduced to any documents especially primary source documents.  In teaching middle school, students struggle with the language, the vocabulary and the word clouds will definitely help students to identify the BIG WORDS.

The first document I tried was the Emancipation Proclamation.  I created two different ones.  The emancipation proclamation in wordle (click on link-Emancipation proclamation).  The second is from Tagxedo below.  I really liked Tagxedo because you could play around with shapes.

The second document I created was the Gettysburg Address.  This I also created with Tagxedo in the shape of Lincoln’s face.


Even giving this to students as a short writing assignment, before giving student the documents, enables them to work through the document in a more easily accessible way. I plan on using this technique in the following ways.

1.  Give the students the picture and ask them what they think the document is about in a short 1 paragraph writing assignment.

2.  Give these as examples and have the students read primary sources and create their own using newspapers/magazines to cut out words.  Students should use the KEY words-not necessarily the ones that show up the most to represent the document in a visual way.

3.  Have the students read the document and then give them the picture and ask them to rework it so it represents the document better.

Finally, in writing this, it reminded me of something I saw in a museum and that was the Preamble written out with the use of license plates.  These can be very powerful teaching tools.  One thing is for sure, I would love suggestions on how you would use Tagxedo and Wordle

Use of video clips to help students understand the Civil War

As teachers today, we need to (or are implored to) consider the students learning styles whenever we plan a lesson.  Some students are visual learners, while others are more hands on learners.  If we plan lesson that include a little bit of everything, we ensure that all students are successful.  In the case of my middle school students, I have found that they have a hard time visualizing the whole picture.  From this, I learned to include video clips that help summarize an idea or a whole idea.  I personally do not recommend showing entire videos as students tend to tune out within the first half hour, but short clips 5-15 minutes keeps the students engaged and interested because they know they are going to move on to something else.

One of my favorite videos is the Civil War in four minutes which is offered by the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  This video used to be online, but has since been taken down due to copyright issues.  You can still purchase this video for 12.99 and it is totally worth the price!!  It shows how the battles influence the line of control between the north and south.  The fact that it is only four minutes enables students to stay engaged.

Do you have any favorite video clips?



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