July 20, 2015

Exploring the Underground Railroad

As a part of my [unofficial] gifted certification in college a few years ago, I taught a 3-week "camp" about the underground railroad. It was tough to come up with 3 weeks worth of content that elementary students would understand and enjoy, but it ended up being a great unit that was so much fun for my students and myself. 

I stumbled upon some of my written plans while packing and moving my classroom and enjoyed reflecting on this particular unit. I thought that I would share a few of my favorite activities that I did to teach about slavery and the underground railroad!

I apologize in advance for the poor quality of the pictures. They're from an old camera.


I ADORE this book. It's about Henry "Box" Brown, who was a slave that MAILED HIMSELF to Pennsylvania, a free state!!!! It's a true story! We talked about how desperate Henry must have been to put himself in a box for days in order to escape his current situation.

I brought in a box for kids to test out, and even wrote the address (from the book) on the outside. Each student took a turn sitting in the box and tried to get comfortable for a few minutes. Afterwards, they reflected and wrote about the experience and what Henry's experience may have been like.


Ellen Craft was a fair-skinned slave who disguised herself as a man to escape to the north. Her husband pretended to be "his" slave as they traveled. What an incredible story and another example of creativity stemming from desperation.

After we talked about what the word "disguise" meant, students got to disguise themselves. While other students were working independently at a center, I pulled one student at a time into the hallway and allowed them to dress in a disguise. I brought in hats, glasses, scarves, shirts, and a bunch of other random stuff from my college dress-up box.

Once disguised, I snapped a picture and told the student not to tell any other students how he or she dressed!

The next day, students came in to see pictures of their disguises posted on the wall. Each page said "Who is This?" As a center that day, students were able to study the pictures on the wall and make guesses about who was who. 

The students pictured here were rising first graders. It's incredible how great and creative their disguises were!

(Obviously, the blue wig was a hit! I totally threw it away after this activity - kid germs, yuck!)


Escaping slaves used the stars as a map when making their way to free states. My co-teacher found this awesome little constellation flashlight thing that projects constellations and their names. The kids loved studying the constellations and seeing what shapes they made.

After this, students created their own constellations. I can't find any pictures, but I purchased some cheap star stickers. Kids stuck the star stickers on black paper and then used white crayons to connect the stars to make a constellation. The names of their constellations were too funny.


In addition to using stars as a guide, runaway slaves may have also used quilts as maps. We studied the different types of quilt codes and meanings that may have been used during the underground railroad time period. Then students made up their own patterns and meanings, which we "sewed" together to make our own class "show-way" quilts. Because I had such young students, they used pattern blocks to create a pattern before illustrating it. 

I am not a huge history buff, but I do find the Civil War years fascinating, therefore I may have a thing for the underground railroad. I have many more ideas that I may share down the road, and tons of lesson plans that I may get around to posting on TPT one day.

For now, I do have some underground railroad task cards that you can grab in my TPT store!

Do you teach about slavery and/or the underground railroad? What are your favorite activities?

Please follow along on InstagramFacebookPinterest, and TPT for more ideas to make your life easier!


  1. I LOVE Henry's Freedom Box! I always read it with my first graders! We also read Show Way and make our own quilt. The underground railroad is always one of my favorite units to teach.

    Shine on in First Grade

    1. Both are fabulous books!! I wish I could teach it! :(

  2. I love these ideas! We do talk about the Underground Railroad in my first grade class, too. I love the disguises! Gotta pin this. :-)

  3. Henry's Freedom Box is one of my all time favorites! I love that you had your students actually try getting in the box and reflecting. Just watched your Periscope and now a follower of your blog! You're too cute!
    Head Over Heels For Teaching


Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your input!