ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Harriet Tubman: An Informative and Impressionistic Look

A unique look at the life and work of a leading figure in the Underground Railroad movement


Key Staff

Classroom Teacher

Key Skills

Making Art: Producing, Executing and Performing
Developing Arts Literacies: Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


Harriet Tubman was a leading figure in the Underground Railroad movement. In this lesson, students research information about her using informative resources and look at impressionistic artwork depicting her life. Comparing informative v. impressionistic sources, they then write a short compare and contrast essay. To conclude this lesson, they create original impressionistic artwork based on the information learned.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Use reference materials to learn about the life of Harriet Tubman.
  • Evaluate artwork depicting Harriet Tubman to gather impressionistic ideas about her.
  • Compare and contrast informative v. impressionistic resources through a writing exercise.
  • Create an original impressionistic piece of art about the historic figure.

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Information Organization
  • Reflection
  • Research
  • Guided Practice

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Review general information about Harriet Tubman. Suggested resources include but are not limited to:


Review photographs of and information about the Harriet Tubman Statue (Swing Low) in New York City:


Review collection of Harriet Tubman artwork and photographs:


Obtain and review Book: Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold

Prior Student Knowledge

General information about slavery, the Underground Railroad, African American history. (It’s OK if they know little before the lesson.)

Physical Space

  • Classroom
  • Computer Lab


Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with vision challenges may need to view artwork on a monitor. Struggling readers may find it easier to work with emergent reader biographies about Harriet Tubman.



1. Show photograph of Swing Low statue. (Do not tell them who the statue is of – at this point – it doesn’t matter. This version of the photo does not have an identifier attached to it.)

Ask students:

  • Where do you think this statue is located? (in a city – it’s actually in Harlem, New York City, but the students may not recognize the location)
  • What is this person doing? (moving forward)
  • What is she carrying? (a snake or serpent)
  • What do you think that snake might represent? (In African American folk tradition, the snake represents one’s enemies or evil. The students won’t know this, and that’s OK. For now, allow them to consider what it might mean. In their research, they might discover what it does mean.)
  • What emotions does she show? (determination, fortitude, drive, purpose, courage, commitment, passion)
  • What is on her skirt? (faces and masks, depicting anonymous passengers on the underground railroad and West African passport masks)
  • Who do you think this person may be? (famous African American woman, students may guess some names, including Tubman)
  • The nickname for the person depicted in this statue is “the conductor.” Why do you think she was called that? (She “ran” something that moved from one place to another, which was the underground railroad, which they might not get – yet.)
  • What role did the artist play in bringing these emotions and attitude to the statue? (She chose the posture, position, ornamentation, symbols, etc.)
  • How did the artist learn about this person to bring these qualities to the statue? (research)
  • What do you call artwork that includes the artist’s perception? (impressionistic art)

[NOTE: On the base of the statue are traditional quilting patterns. Historians are currently debating the role of quilts in the Underground Railroad movement.]


2. Read Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold.

Ask students:

  • Who was Aunt Harriet? (Harriet Tubman)
  • What was the underground railroad? (south to north passageway for escaped slaves)
  • Why does the author put the words “in the sky” in the title? (Slaves used the sky to guide them north on their journey.)
  • How would you feel if you were an African American trying to escape slavery? (answers will vary)
  • What role do facts (real information) play in this story? (They provide foundational information on which the author can place her own interpretation or impression.)
  • What role do the illustrations play? (Illustrations tell part of the story. The words tell the other part. These illustrations are child-like as the story is seen through the eyes of children on a sky journey.)


3. Look at photo of the statue again. (This time use the photo with the descriptor.)

Ask students:

  • What is similar between the statue and the picture book? (Both show an artist’s interpretation or impression of a determined African American woman who played an important role in history, other answers may vary)
  • What is different between the statue and the picture book? (The statue is 3-D, the book is 2-D; the statue stands alone; the words and illustrations are part of a whole (book); other answers may vary)
  • Why do you think this statue faces south rather than north? (Harriet had the determination to return south after each trip north to guide other slaves to freedom. She risked her life each time she did this.)
  • Who do you think may have determined the statue’s direction? (the artist in her interpretation)
  • How did the composition of this photograph influence your interpretation of the statue? (Photographer selected an angle to spotlight movement, the snake, its location, etc.)

Recommended Resources:

Build Knowledge

1. Create a K-W-L chart on the poster board or white board. (K =  know, W = want to know, and L = learned).

























Ask students to share with you what they already know about Harriet Tubman. Put their responses in the K column.

2. Ask students to share with you what they want to know about Harriet Tubman. Put their responses in the W column.

3. Divide students into research teams. Assign items from the W column to each of the teams. (You may opt to assign the entire list to each team to compare research results.) Encourage students to record their findings as accurately as possible, including dates, locations, other people, etc. Ask them to document their sources. Internet sources for this research may include but are not limited to:

Students can also use print resources, such as biographies, encyclopedias, etc.

4. Record what teams learned in the L column.

5. Share the Harriet Tubman timeline with them.

Ask them:

  • What information is on the timeline that we already knew from our knowledge and research?
  • What information is on the timeline that we did not know?
  • Add this information to the KWL chart.

6. Examine Harriet Tubman Artwork and Photos. This can be done as a group or in research teams.

Ask students:

  • How are the artwork and photos the same? (same person, black and white, all show her face, etc.)
  • How are the artwork and photos different? (some show full body, some show just face; some include props, some show just her; etc.)
  • How did the artist or photographer influence the viewer? (inclusion of props, captured facial expressions, clothing, background, etc.)
  • Are photographs realistic or impressionistic? (Although photographs capture a real moment in time, portrait photographers can influence our impression of the person by choices he or she makes in composition.)
  • What information can we take from artwork? (We can view an event in history through the eyes of the artist. He or she can show emotions of the moment. We see his or her understanding of the event. We must remember, however, that each piece of artwork is only one person’s impression. They are not facts.)

Recommended Resources:


1. Write a compare and contrast essay. Using information gathered on the KWL chart and personal impressions of artwork, write a two-paragraph essay comparing and contrasting information and impressionistic artwork about Harriet Tubman. Encourage students to write a strong topic sentence for each paragraph, elaborate on thoughts in each paragraph with at least five facts or impressions, cite sources where appropriate, and use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Remind them to consider the statue and picture book as well as the photographs and artwork.


1. Create original impressionistic art. Ask students to use the facts that they gathered about Harriet Tubman to create their own impressionistic artwork about her. Remind them that as the artist, they have control of what the viewer sees or interprets, from body parts, expression, activity, props, background, illustration style, emotions, character traits, etc. Offer them a variety of drawing tools for this project.

2. Create a Tubman art gallery. Display the students’ artwork in the classroom or hallway. Allow students to view and comment on the displayed pieces.


Use the Assessment Rubric to assess student's performance.

Extended Learning

  • Have students create 3-D artwork depicting the life of Harriet Tubman.
  • Compare picture books about a famous person (or several people) to examine the illustrator’s artwork and choices in illustration technique.
  • Find additional artwork of Harriet Tubman to include in the comparison.
  • Experiment with portraiture photography to offer the viewer different interpretations of the same person.
  • Examine a statue of another famous person.
  • Engage in parts 2, 3, or 4 of this unit.


Recommended Resources:


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

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Gladys Van Der Woude
Original Writer

Carol Parenzan Smalley
Original Writer

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