ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Harriet Tubman: Illustrating History

Using information to capture a moment from life.


Key Staff

Can be taught by the classroom teacher or the arts education teacher or both.

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 are introduced to the “conductor” of the slavery freedom movement through a children’s book -- Harriet and the Promised Land – which was illustrated using the collage-style artwork of Jacob Lawrence. Using historical information from the book, students create original collage artwork about Tubman in the style of Lawrence.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Be introduced to the life of Harriet Tubman through a children’s book, Harriet and the Promised Land
  • Become acquainted with the artistic technique of collage
  • Become acquainted with the collage artist Jacob Lawrence
  • Create original artwork in the style of Jacob Lawrence

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Discussion
  • Hands-On Learning
  • Visual Instruction
  • Studio Practice
  • Guided Practice

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Projector
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Review general information about Harriet Tubman. The following resources may be reviewed by the teacher to better prepare for the lesson:

Review lesson-specific information about Jacob Lawrence. Suggested resources:

Obtain and review book: Harriet and the Promised Land by Jacob Lawrence.

Obtain and review book: Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence by John Duggleby

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



Large Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with vision challenges may need to view artwork on a monitor.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Play Experience Jacob Lawrence through Migration Series, a link for which may be found within the Resource Carousel. Skip the introduction, but you can include the sound.

Ask students:

  • What is similar about these pieces of artwork?
    (bold colors, repeated colors, strong shapes, repeated shapes, strong lines, they seem to tell an African American story, heavy feeling to artwork, strong emotions, little detail, exaggerated figures)
  • Why did the artist call this collection of artwork the Migration Series?
    (African Americans were moving from the south to the north to begin a new life)
  • How did you feel as you viewed this series of artwork?
    (answers may vary)

Build Knowledge

1. Introduce the artist, Jacob Lawrence, to students by reading Story Painter: The Life of Jacob Lawrence by John Duggleby.

2. Explain that the Underground Railroad is the term given to a “secret migration” of escaped slaves from the south to the north. This is not the migration that Lawrence was depicting in his Migration Series, but it is the subject of some of Lawrence’s artwork.

3. Learn about the Underground Railroad and its “conductor,” Harriet Tubman, through the reading (or select sharing) of Harriet and the Promised Land by Jacob Lawrence.

Ask students:

  • How is the artwork in this book similar to the slide show?
    (same colors, shapes, emotions, style)
  • What do you think Lawrence was trying to share with his viewers through this series of artwork?
    (the emotional journey of Tubman and her followers, the risk, the fear)
  • What new information did you learn about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad?
    (Answers will vary)

[NOTE TO TEACHER: If you created a KWL chart in the Informative v. Impressionistic lesson about Harriet Tubman, you can add information learned from this book to the chart.]

4. Explore the artistic style of collage. Explain that collage is an art style. It comes from the word coller, meaning to glue or to stick. In Lawrence’s work (and other collage artists’ work), layers of shapes, color, and other items are layered onto a single surface to create a multi-layered creation. In collage, such as that by Lawrence, there is often a background, middle ground, and foreground. Show a piece of artwork in Harriet and the Promised Land.

Ask students:

  • Is the artwork composed using a vertical or horizontal layout and why?
    (Most, but not all, portraits are done in a vertical format, and most, but not all, landscapes are done in a horizontal format.)
  • What is in the background?
    (Answers will vary depending on piece selected)
  • What is in the middle ground?
    (Answers will vary depending on piece selected)
  • What is in the foreground?
    (Answers will vary depending on piece selected)
  • How does the artist distinguish between these “grounds”?
    (By varying the size of the shapes, from smallest in background to largest in foreground)
  • In what order do you think the artist places items onto the paper?
    (Background to foreground)
  • Why do shapes overlap?
    (Do create depth through layers)
  • How did he know where to place the items?
    (He probably made a sketch with pencil first to visualize the pieces and their placement onto the paper.)
  • What colors did Lawrence use?
    (Answers will vary depending on piece selected)
  • What shapes are repeated?
    (Answers will vary depending on piece selected)
  • What story was Lawrence trying to tell with this collage illustration?
    (Answers will vary depending on piece selected)


1. Create a Lawrence-type collage. Ask students to create a scene that depicts an aspect of Harriet Tubman’s life or journey. The scene should depict three or more “facts” about Tubman and her north-south journeys. Students can pull from information gained in the reading of Harriet and the Promised Land or from other Tubman lessons or past knowledge. For example, students may choose to show the North Star that guided her, rivers the slaves journeyed along or waded in, friends that housed the slaves along the way, or some of the dangers they encountered.

Remind students that in collage work:

  • Sketch a rough draft of the picture you will construct from cut paper. Pay careful attention to the size and placement of each object.
  • Select a piece of construction paper and decide the orientation of your picture (landscape or portrait).
  • Cut the main pieces first and decide on their placement.
  • Cut and paste the background pieces.
  • Experiment with the pieces that will make up the foreground and middle ground. Practice overlapping the pieces to create a sense of space or depth. Change the size and/or placement of the pieces as needed.
  • Glue the middle ground and foreground objects.


1. Create a Jacob Lawrence classroom gallery. Display the artwork in the classroom or hallway. If possible, place Lawrence prints alongside student work.

2. Ask each student to serve as a docent (museum tour guide) and explain his or her artwork to the class on the tour.

3. Use the Assessment Rubric, located within the Resource Carousel, to assess students' performance.

Extending the Learning

  • Explore other collage artists
  • Explore other Jacob Lawrence artwork
  • Create a collage in the Lawrence style to share another topic
  • Take another event in history and as a class/team, show the story using a series of collages
  • Engage in parts 1, 3, or 4 of this unit


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.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education
National Standards in Other Subjects



Carol Parenzan Smalley
Original Writer

Gladys Van Der Woude
Original Writer

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