This unit of study was developed using the Understanding by Design method.
Written by Erika Gomez-Schanne and Ramona Garcia

Subject/Topic Areas: Reading/Writing/Social Studies
Time Frame:
Six weeks
Grades: 4 & up

Summary of Unit:
     This unit will look at the issues of slavery and abolition and their effects on our society.  Students will learn how groups of people opposed slavery and how it was finally abolished in this country.  They will learn that past issues connect to the present by looking at modern slavery practices and ways to change these practices. 

Essential Questions:

Unit questions:

  • How have various groups of people influenced the development of America?
  • What can we learn from analyzing major historical events?
  • How do American values and beliefs contribute to the continuation of American democracy?

 Content questions:

  • What is slavery?
  • How did slavery and abolitionism change our society?
  • What is abolitionism?
  • Who were the major contributors/opponents of the Abolitionist Movement?
  • What parts of the country allowed the practice of slavery?  What parts of the country abolished the practice of slavery?
  • How did people and communities that helped slaves change American society?
  • How did slavery cause conflict in the U.S.?
  • What was the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th – 15th Amendments and its effect on American society?
  • Does slavery exist in the 21st century?


Project 1: Follow the Trail

Time Frame: One Week

Your goal is to help slaves flee their masters’ plantations by guiding them through the Underground Railroad to safety in the North.

Your group is abolitionists residing in New Jersey.

Your audience is slaves and other abolitionists who participate in the Underground Railroad.

            You have been asked to develop a covert “map” of the Underground Railroad using various forms of communication.  Your “map” should illustrate understanding of geographical locations and key areas of safety where the slaves will find refuge until they reach their destination.

            You will need to prepare a “map” using a song, a story, a game, or other forms of communication.  You should provide clues in your “map” that will guide the slaves through safe passages throughout the Southern routes.  Include a presentation that will be given to other abolitionists and participants of the Underground Railroad explaining how your “map” works.

Project 2: 21st Century Campaign

Time Frame: One week

Students will work together to develop a “campaign” to inform people about slavery today and how people can help bring about change. 

You are an anti-slavery activist that wants to inform about slavery that exists today.

The audience consists of the classroom, school, and community.

Most people don’t know that slavery still exists in the 21st century.  You want to let the world know about the injustices committed in our country as well as other countries.  You and your group decide to create a campaign that will inform the public about the different forms of slavery that still exist today.

            Your group will begin by choosing a form of slavery to research.  Using the Internet and other resources, your group will gather information and take notes on your topic.  Decide on a format for your campaign, such as Powerpoint presentation, role-playing, posters, creating a webpage, or any other multimedia format.

Learning Activities:

1. To introduce unit on slavery and abolitionism, the teacher will announce in the morning to students that all their rights and freedoms in the classroom have been taken away.  Teacher elaborates on what the students can and cannot do.  The students are now slaves and are owned by another human being. 

2.     Ask students “What is slavery?” and enable discussion.  Pose the question “Has there ever been a time in our country’s history that people were slaves?”.  Develop KWL chart on what students know about American slavery.

3.   Students will watch the interactive video The Melrose Interactive Slavery Environment (  Students will explore the estate from the perspective of the men, women, and children who were enslaved there.  In reader’s response notebook, students will write a journal diary from the point of view of one of the slaves.  Students will reflect on what life must have been look for slaves.

4.   Discuss if the issue of slavery alone was a good enough reason to start the “War Between the States.”

5.   Lead a class discussion on individual rights.  What are rights?  Can our laws support the rights of all people every time?  Teacher creates a Venn Diagram to facilitate a compare and contrast analysis of the privileges students have today compared to the child slaves in 1725.  Students will compare and contrast life as they live it today and life as African-American children lived in the past.

6.   In groups, students will look at a primary document of a political map of the United States (  They will analyze the map and infer what the colors on the map mean.  Discuss the existence of free states and slave states and it’s implications on slavery.

7.   Teacher reads the Abolitionist Hymn (  Discussion will follow about the poem.  Teacher will teach mini-lesson on text features of hymns and poems.  Students will then work on their own hymns/poems.

8. Students will view Slavery and the Making of America, .  This movie will allow students to closely examine the abolitionist movement and the roles of Frederick Douglas, John Brown, and other significant abolitionists.  In reader’s response notebook, students will review the political map and answer the question “How did slavery cause conflict in the United States?”

9.  Students will listen to an excerpt of Bound for the North Star: True Stories of Fugitive Slaves.  (This book vividly depicts the horrors of slavery and the high value of freedom.  It also focuses on important developments such as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the British Parliaments outlawing of slaves in 1834.)  Have students work in groups to brainstorm how the rights of some people were taken away.  Students will create a newspaper containing articles concerning this time period.

10. Read If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine.  This book is in a question/answer format in which the students are introduced to what the underground railroad was and how it was used between 1830-1860 to help slaves in America escape to the North.  Students will take notes in their journal about the most important information gathered in the book.

11. Explain to students that the story Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt took place the last years when slavery existed in our country.  Thousands of slaves tried to escape to freedom in the North and were often helped along a secret route called the Underground Railroad.  Using a map of the United States, ask students if they can name any of the slave or free states.  Have students locate Canada on the map.  Read aloud Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson.  What did Clara’s opportunity cost when she chose to run away?  Why did she think her choice was better than what she gave up?  How do you think the plantation owners felt about runaway slave?

12. Read Follow the Drinking Gourd or any other books on the Underground railroad.Then provide students with a map of the United States (alternative outline map) and ask them to trace the route of the Underground Railroad from Alabama to Canada.  Encourage students to map some additional routes slaves from other states might have used.  For reference, students can look at this site for routes of the Underground Railroad (

13. In groups of 3-4, ask students to brainstorm other ways that slaves could have escaped.  Create a chart of ideas.  Then read aloud Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine about a man who mailed himself to freedom.  Discuss how Henry used his used ingenuity to escape from slavery.  Students will go back to their groups to rework or invent new ways to escape. 

14. Ask students to note the leading figures in the abolitionist movement as they explore an online slave auction (  Students will break into groups and research famous abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, etc.  Students will use online resources, trade books, references, and magazines.  Each group will write a short summary about their abolitionist.

15. Give students copies of the Emancipation Proclamation ( In groups, students will work together to fill out the worksheet that will help them analyze Abraham Lincoln’s document (   Have class discussion on document and discuss how people would view it from different perspectives.

16. Examine the Bill of Rights ( and discuss why the Bill of Rights were created. Explain that at the end of the Civil War, three more amendments were added to guarantee the rights of African Americans or former slaves.  Discuss the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation on the Bill of Rights.  Three groups will be formed to analyze the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment.  Groups will choose one of the amendments and complete Venn Diagram comparing the amendment to the Emancipation Proclamation.

17. Amendment groups will look at the amendments and provide a summary to share with the whole class.  On chart paper, each group will write their summary for each amendment.  They will then provide examples of how these rights are protected.

18. In reading response journals, students will answer the question “Did these four documents “give” freedom and rights to African Americans, or did they “recognize” the freedom and rights of African Americans? Explain your answer.

19. The groups will work together to write an essay in which they describe what might have happened if the Civil War had not happened and if the Emancipation Proclamation and the four amendments had not been written.

20. In reading response journals, students will answer the question “How did slavery and abolition change our country and our society?”  Students can choose any format they like to answer the question.

21. Ask students if slavery exists today.  If it does, where and how does it exist?  Students will act out a situation in which a person becomes a bonded laborer (  Discussion questions will be answered in small groups and discussed in whole groups.

22. Abolitionists were groups of people who worked together to help abolish slavery.  They were able to help change our society.  Students will think about change and how people can bring about change in the present as they once did in the past.  Working in small groups, students will look at case studies and comment on how the situations could have been different.