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Lesson Plan

Critical Perspectives: Reading and Writing About Slavery

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Grades 3 – 5
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Five 60-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Kelly Finnegan

Seffner, Florida

Emily Manning

Emily Manning

Denton, Texas


International Literacy Association


Student Objectives

Session 1: Reading Fiction and Starting a K-W-L Chart

Session 2: Reading Nonfiction and Adding to the K-W-L Chart

Session 3: Critical Perspectives

Session 4: Creative Writing Projects

Session 5: Sharing and Closure


Student Assessment/Reflections



Students will

  • Practice effective reading strategies by making predictions and activating prior knowledge before reading, and making connections during and after reading

  • Develop a deeper comprehension of slavery and the Underground Railroad by pairing the fictional story Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt with the nonfiction text The Underground Railroad

  • Examine the moral issues of slavery, considering the perspectives of both slaves and slave owners

  • Synthesize what they have learned by participating in creative writing projects, in which they write from the perspective of a slave or slave owner

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Session 1: Reading Fiction and Starting a K-W-L Chart

1. Gather students in a comfortable area with their journals and pencils. Enlarge the K-W-L chart (or re-create one) and post it where students can see it.

2. Begin the lesson by doing a "picture walk" through the fictional book Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson. Explain to students that this book is an example of historical fiction. Historical fiction includes real events amidst a made-up storyline. Tell students that while some parts of the story are made up, others like the time period and some of the happenings are based on true events. Let students enjoy the illustrations in the book, and then ask them to write their predictions about the story in their journals.

3. After providing time for students to share their predictions, activate their prior knowledge about slavery and the Underground Railroad. It is important to allow everyone time to share their thoughts and ideas; one student's prior knowledge often serves as a springboard for others. While students are sharing, take notes on sticky notes and post them under the K column on the K-W-L chart.

4. Begin reading the story, pausing at the end of each page for students to check their predictions and make connections (i.e., text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world). Note: If students are unfamiliar with making connections, you may want to conduct a minilession to teach them this strategy. The lesson "Guided Comprehension: Making Connections Using a Double-Entry Journal" can be modified to meet your students' needs.

5. At certain points during the story, stop reading and have students talk to one another about the predictions, connections, and questions they have been writing in their journals. Prompt students to predict the significance of the quilt to see if they are following the storyline.

6. At the end of the story, conduct a class discussion by posing the following questions:

  • What did you learn about slavery from this book? (When students answer, add these sticky notes to the L column of the K-W-L chart. In the next session, these notes can be compared to what they learn from the nonfiction text.)

  • What parts of the book do you think are fictional? What parts do you think are based on facts? Why do you think that?

  • If we wanted to research to find out what parts of this book were based on fact, where would we look?

  • After reading this book, do you have any questions about the Underground Railroad? What other things would you like to learn about the Underground Railroad? (Add these sticky notes to the W column of the chart.)

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Session 2: Reading Nonfiction and Adding to the K-W-L Chart

1. Gather students in a comfortable area and have sticky notes and pencils available.

2. Post the K-W-L chart and review with students what they learned about slavery and the Underground Railroad from Session 1.

3. Introduce the nonfiction book The Underground Railroad by Raymond Bial. Tell students that you will be reading this book aloud so that they can add information to the K-W-L chart. Help students make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Remind them that the book in Session 1 was an example of historical fiction (i.e., the story and characters were made up, but the setting and some of the events were based on fact). Explain that in this session they will be listening to a nonfiction text. The author's purpose is to describe and explain the Underground Railroad by providing true information.

4. While reading, stop periodically and prompt students to make text-to-text connections to the book Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt or any other books they have read. Ask students to also use the sticky notes to write down new things they learn about the Underground Railroad.

5. Before sharing the new information learned in this session, read through the sticky notes in the L column that were posted in Session 1. See if any of those are confirmed through the nonfiction reading. This is a way to show that historical fiction often includes facts. On the other hand, this may also be a good opportunity to identify parts students thought were true in Sweet Clara that were actually fictional.

6. Next, have students share their sticky notes from this session and attach them to the K-W-L chart in the L column. Review the W column from Session 1 to see if any of their questions were answered. Place a star or some distinguishing mark on the questions that were answered. After looking at the questions, ask students if there is any more information that they would like to learn about the Underground Railroad. Add those questions to the W column. Display this chart in the classroom for students to refer and add to as they progress through the lesson.

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Session 3: Critical Perspectives

1. Revisit the K-W-L chart, focusing on the L column. Begin by sorting the sticky notes in the L column into two groups: information learned about slaves and information learned about slave owners. Ask students to think about the two books they read, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt and The Underground Railroad. What did they learn about slave owners? What conclusions can they draw about slave owners based on the text and illustrations? For example, from Sweet Clara, students can draw the conclusion that slave owners had land that needed to be worked on, did not like when slaves ran away, would sometimes hurt slaves if they tried to escape, and had more money than slaves. Write the conclusions that students come up with on sticky notes and add them to the L column. Make sure that their conclusions can be supported by words or text from one of the books they read.

2. Next, ask students whether slaves were right or wrong to run away from their slave owners. After a few responses, ask them to consider this same question from the perspective of the slave owners. Why do they think that each group would have a different perspective, and is it justified to say that one perspective was right or wrong considering the historical context?

3. Gather students into small groups. Have each group make a two-column chart (i.e., T-chart) on a sheet of notebook paper, labeling the left side "Slave Owners" and the right side "Slaves." Working together with their group, students should list all the reasons why slave owners kept slaves on the left side, and all the reasons why slaves thought this was unfair on the right side. Allow students to refer to the K-W-L chart as they are writing their lists.

4. Once groups have had time to write their lists, gather students together and ask each group to share the reasons they listed. Have groups actively listen to other groups by adding new ideas to their lists or checking ideas off that are similar to or the same as other groups.

5. To end the session, have students respond to one of the following prompts in their journals:

  • If you had been a slave, explain in two or three sentences how you might have felt about slave owners. Try to use ideas from the list your group prepared.

  • If you had been a slave owner, explain in two or three sentences why you needed to have slaves and how you felt when they escaped. Try to use ideas from the list your group prepared.

Give students about 10 minutes to write. Ask students to meet with partners to share their journals entries with one another.

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Session 4: Creative Writing Projects

In this session, give students the option to choose one of three creative writing projects to synthesize what they have learned and demonstrate comprehension of the critical perspectives surrounding slavery. Students who choose the same option can be paired up to work on their project together. Each option includes the use of technology to create the project. Before students begin, share the creative writing rubrics (Coded Message Rubric, Letter Writing Rubric, and Newspaper Rubric) to give students a set of goals and expectations for their projects.

  • Option 1: Coded Message

    The quilt in the story Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt contained a coded message that only other runaway slaves would recognize to help them find the Underground Railroad. Discuss why runaway slaves needed coded messages.

    The task for this pair of students is to create a secret message that runaway slaves would be able to use to find the Underground Railroad. Allow students to use their creativity in constructing their secret message (e.g., through a quilt design or picture, an encoded booklet or map, a story with a secret message). Students may choose to use the online Flip Book to create their coded message as appropriate.
  • Option 2: Newspaper

    The task for this pair of students is to publish a one-page newspaper using the ReadWriteThink Printing Press. Students have the option to create a newspaper aimed at slave owners or publish an underground newspaper for slaves. The articles for the newspaper should be written following the writing process. Articles should also express the perspective of the selected audience and an understanding of the social context and time period.

  • Option 3: Letter Writing

    For this option, pairs of students can take the perspective of either Clara and write a letter home to her aunt about her experiences traveling the Underground Railroad, or a slave owner and write a letter to another slave owner about one of his slaves who escaped. Students can use the online Letter Generator to type and print their letters.

Remind students to refer to the L column of the K-W-L chart to incorporate things they have learned about the Underground Railroad in their projects. They can also refer back to the books they read during Sessions 1 and 2, or do further research to be able to incorporate additional details as needed.

Circulate while students are working on their projects to answer questions or help them with the writing process. Also, remind students to check their work for spelling and grammatical errors before printing a final copy.

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Session 5: Sharing and Closure

1. Allow each pair of students to share their creative writing project with the class. To keep students engaged, you may want to schedule a few presentations to be made at the beginning of several sessions. After each pair shares, ask the class to comment on the things they liked about the project and one thing that could be improved.

2. After all of the projects have been presented, take time to meet with the class for a closing discussion. This is a good time for the class to think about the implications of considering more than one perspective. Start by discussing what they learned about slavery and how looking at both sides helped to better understand the critical issues surrounding slavery.

3. Ask them to share a time in their lives when there was conflict (e.g., fighting with a friend or sibling, not getting permission to do something, getting in trouble at school). After they have discussed their side of the story, challenge them to consider the perspective of the other person. For example, why wouldn't their parents give them permission? Did they have a good reason? Were they just being mean? Were they trying to help or protect them? Discuss how considering other perspectives might help them to think in different ways and give them ideas for compromise.

4. End the discussion by creating a class chart that includes important ideas to remember about critical perspectives. The chart can include the definition of critical perspectives and ways it can help them in their reading and daily life. Post the chart in the classroom and use it as a reference when reading about other topics throughout the year.

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  • Use the Observation Rubric during Sessions 1 through 3 to assess studentsí participation and understanding. Use the information gained from the assessment to adjust the pace of each session or to support a student who seems to be struggling with the content. For example, if there is a student who does not offer input during class discussions, find an opportunity during the discussion to prompt him or her with guided questions.

  • Assess each pairís creative writing project with the Coded Message Rubric, Newspaper Rubric, and Letter Writing Rubric.

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