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Extension Activities

Virginia Hamilton Extension Activities

As Carl Westmoreland from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center explains on the Ohio Reading Road Trip Instructional DVD/videotape, many people took part in the Underground Railroad and helped slaves escape from the South, but many people of African descent escaped on their own and made their way north without assistance. How did they know where to go and which routes were safe? Certainly that information came from many sources. It could have been passed along from slave to slave. White people (who generally would have ignored slaves and treated them as if they were not present) may have spoken in front of slaves about areas where runaways had recently been captured, alerting potential escapees to avoid those places. Some people believe that enslaved people may have taught each other songs, such as "Follow the Drinking Gourd," that contained secret directions to Underground Railroad stations. Others believe that escaping slaves used other secret symbols or methods to identify safe routes and places to stay. Some of these symbols are important to the plot in The House of Dies Drear.

In this activity, students will investigate the Underground Railroad in Ohio, as well as methods that enslaved persons might have used to make their way north. If they watch the film version of this novel, they will also compare the book to the movie and discuss the differences.

Getting Started

Lesson Objectives
After completing this activity, students will be able to:

  • Write a song or rap in the style of "Follow the Drinking Gourd"
  • Research and present information on the Underground Railroad in Ohio

Grade Level Indicators
In meeting the lesson objectives, students will:

H. Use available technology to compose text
J. Write informational essays or reports (including research) that present a literal understanding of the topic; pose relevant and tightly drawn questions that engage the reader; provide a clear and accurate perspective on the subject; create an organizing structure appropriate to the purpose, audience, and context; support the main ideas with facts, details, examples, and explanations from sources; and document sources and include bibliographies
L. Locate information using text features and parts of books

Time Required
These activities will require approximately six 45-minute class periods to complete, with additional research completed outside of class.

  • "Follow the Drinking Gourd" - 45 minutes
  • The Underground Railroad in Ohio - 45-90 minutes in class, plus research outside of class
  • Aaaaand Action! - 90 minutes
  • Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt - 45 minutes

Resources Needed

  • Handout with lyrics for "Follow the Drinking Gourd"
  • CD or other music media with the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd"
  • The House of Dies Drear videotape
  • Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson


Follow the Drinking Gourd

Give each student a copy of the song lyrics of "Follow the Drinking Gourd" and play the song for them.

"Follow the Drinking Gourd" can be found on the following CDs:
  • Brown Girl In Ring: World Music Collection
  • The Weavers Greatest Hits
  • Follow the Drinking Gourd by Morgan Freeman/Taj Mahal

Students can listen to the song on the "Songs for Teaching" web site or at the "Pathways to Freedom" web site.

Sheet music for "Follow the Drinking Gourd" can be found at http://www.madison.k12.wi.us/planetarium/ftdgsong.pdf.

Discuss the meaning of each of the four stanzas. An excellent explanation can be found at http://www.madison.k12.wi.us/planetarium/ftdg1.htm.

Put the students in pairs or small groups and have them collaborate to write a short song or rap that gives "secret" directions to a specified location such as school, the park, the movie theater, etc. If students work on their songs outside of class, remind them that they should not place arrows, secret symbols, or marks of any kind on public or private property. Ask volunteers to perform their songs or raps in front of the class.

The Underground Railroad in Ohio

Working in small groups or independently, have students research the Underground Railroad in Ohio. Your local library, newspaper, or historical society may be able to provide specific information about your region that students will find especially interesting. After they have collected information, have students present what they've learned through one or more of the following activities:

  • Create newspaper articles about people in Ohio who helped slaves escape and related events. Organize these into a class newspaper about the Underground Railroad.
  • Write and present a short skit about a typical journey on the Underground Railroad.
  • Create a map of Ohio or your local area marked with escape routes, safe houses or "stations," and other interesting Underground Railroad information.

Aaaaand Action! The House of Dies Drear The Movie

The film version of The House of Dies Drear is dated, but it can be a positive learning tool for students. If you decide to show this, do so only after students have completed the novel and the test.

Have each student create a Venn diagram as the movie plays to show the similarities and the differences between the book and the movie. After the movie, have them answer the following questions, writing at least two paragraphs for each answer.

  • Which did you like better: the book or the movie? Give several reasons to support your answer.
  • Do you think that Virginia Hamilton would be pleased with the movie version of her novel? Explain why or why not.

After the students have completed the questions and diagrams, discuss their answers and any ideas they might have for adapting the book for film today.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

Explain to the students that enslaved people had many ways to receive and pass information about the Underground Railroad. Some researchers believe that quilts were hung over fences and railings to provide clues to runaways as they made their way north. Others believe that the stitches and patterns on the quilts represented secret codes. Since no records were kept of the meanings of quilts - because, of course, if quilts did have special symbols or meanings, those would have been kept secret - we can only guess at how these and other everyday items may have been used to provide directions and other information to escaping slaves.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson is a fictional tale of a girl who creates a map to freedom on a quilt. Read Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt to your students. Then ask the following questions:

  • What might have happened to the main characters of this story?
  • Is this story believable? Why or why not?
  • Do you think quilts would have been an effective way to pass along secret information?
  • Compare the methods of passing along information that are described in this story to the methods used in The House of Dies Drear. How are they different? Which methods do you think would have worked best? Why?

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