ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

Harriet Tubman: Secret Messages Shared through Song

Sing along with Philadelphia 4th graders and slaves journeying on the Underground Railroad through their spiritual music.


Key Staff

Can be taught by the classroom teacher or the music 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 African-American spiritual and its use of a secret language to share information within the slave community. Tubman and other slaves traveling along the Underground Railroad used spiritual music as part of their escape plan. After studying the spiritual, students create their own spiritual to share a message.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

1. Be exposed to the African-American spiritual through a song written and performed by Philadelphia fourth graders and a traditional African-American spiritual.

2. Dissect the spiritual to understand the call and response technique and its use of syncopation.

3. Learn some of the key phrases used as secret code in the song.

4. Create their own spiritual to convey a message.

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Demonstration
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection
  • Guided Listening

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

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

Video: The Quest for Freedom

Web site: Harriet Tubman (includes primary sources)

Web site: Harriet Tubman biography

Newspaper ad: Runaway Slave Reward

Student-friendly Web site: Harriet Tubman (includes history puzzles)

Web site: National Park Service: Underground Railroad

Interview: Historian Ira Berlin Discusses the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman Timeline

Review lesson-specific information about black spirituals used during the time of the Underground Railroad.

Original Song: Do You Want to Be Free?

[Note to Editors: Obtain licensing for song.]

Myths and Codes of the Underground Railroad (specifically pages 20-30)

Wade in the Water: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC-1_8fYDUo&feature=related

[This is a performance by Voices of Unity Youth Choir: http://www.unityperformingarts.com/worldChoir/

I think it would be great to get a license to put this on the site. Youth inspires youth!]

[Note to Editors: If we don’t receive permission to use this, I can revamp this part of the lesson. My preference, however, is this song and this performance.]

Decoding of Wade in the Water (see page 3)


Understanding Syncopation

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 hearing challenges may need assistance through an interpreter.


Resources in Reach

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

Build Knowledge


1. Without any introduction, play Do You Want to Be Free?

During the chorus, as the teacher, sing the “response” portion. Gesture to the students to join you on this part of the song.

(After they have heard it once, you can give them a copy of the lyrics so they can follow along more closely.)

Ask students:

  • What are you hearing? (a song, a story about history using music, an African-American spiritual, a children’s chorus)
  • Who is this song about? (Harriet Tubman)
  • Who was this person? (a leader in the Underground Railroad movement that helped slaves escape the south and move north)

[Note to Teacher: If this is the students’ first exposure to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, take some time to explain the era and movement. There are resources listed in the Preparation section of this lesson.]

  • From whose perspective is this song written? (Harriet Tubman’s)
  • What format is used in the chorus? (call and response, sing and repeat, sing and echo)
  • Who is performing the song? (an adult and children’s group)

[Note to Teacher: You can explain to your class that this song was the result of an artist/musician visiting a class of fourth graders in Philadelphia during their study of the Underground Railroad and women’s history.]

Recommended Resources:

Build Knowledge

1. Introduce the African-American Spiritual.

Ask students:

  • Why did slaves sing songs? (to entertain themselves, for religious reasons, to communicate information, to pass the time, to make their work easier by moving to the beat, etc.)

 Explain to students that most African Americans were illiterate. Since they could not read, they sang songs to remember things and to communicate information. Their masters did not allow them to gather together to attend church, as they feared that together the slaves might grow strong and revolt. Their songs often contained codes that the slaves knew but their masters did not.

 2. Introduce the concept of codes in songs and communications.

Ask students:

  • What secret codes do you use that your parents and other adults may not know? (slang, chat talk, text messaging talk, etc.)
  • Why do you use these codes instead of the “real language”? (it’s quicker, it can be secret, etc.)
  • Why would slaves trying to escape use codes? (to share information about escape plans and escape routes without non-slaves knowing)

3. Watch the performance of Wade in the Water .

Ask students:

  • What are you hearing? (a performance of an African-American spiritual, a children’s choir, an old song sung in modern times)
  • What do you think this song is about? (answers may vary)
  • What does “wade in the water” mean? (answers may vary)
  • Who is Moses? (answers may vary)
  • Who are “the children of the Israelites”? (answers may vary)
  • Why some phrases repeated? (they are the primary message, they are the chorus’s “response”) 

4. After you listen to the performance once, give students a copy of the lyrics. Listen a second time to Wade in the Water.

Ask students to underline repeated phrases and words in the song.

Give students a copy of the worksheet Codes and Phrases Used on Underground Railroad.

Working in teams, ask students to try to decode the song. They may be able to find key words or parts of phrases to help them. Share interpretations of the song with each other. (They should find words like Jordan, friends, water.)

5. Watch Wade in the Water one more time. This time, ask students to listen for the “beat.” As the teacher, snap your fingers on the beat. (The beat is actually the “off beat,” as it is syncopation. Listen to the music. You will hear this beat.) When the chorus starts to clap, you should clap. Encourage the students to join you with the finger snapping and hand clapping.

6. Explain syncopation (a rhythm in music that is not expected, often on the “off” or “up” beat). Explain that syncopation is common in African-American spirituals. It often gives the spiritual a jazz feeling.

  7. Listen to Do You Want to Be Free? one more time. Ask students to snap their fingers or clap their hands on the syncopated beats.

Recommended Resources:


1. Write original African-American spirituals. Divide the class into teams. Ask each team to:

  • Select a topic that was important to slaves during the time of the Underground Railroad. For example, your song may be about following the North Star, hiding from those who want to capture you, leaving your family behind, surviving winter weather, looking for the Promised Land or freedom, or wondering what your new life will be like.
  • Consider whose voice we might be hearing (such as Tubman’s in the first song).
  • Use code words and phrases to communicate a secret message.
  • Write an original spiritual to a known tune (such as one of the spirituals heard in this lesson) or to an original tune with two or more verses and a chorus.
  • Use the call and response technique.
  • Use syncopation in its performance.
  • Write out the lyrics to share with their classmates.

2. Perform the original spirituals for the class.


1. Decode each other’s spirituals. Assign each team another team’s spiritual. Ask each to try to decode the song. Ask the students:

  • Was the creative team successful in sharing their message with us?
  • Can a song have more than one interpretation? (yes)
  • What did they do well?
  • What emotions did you feel as you listened to the spirituals in this lesson (recorded and original)?
  • How might you feel as a slave who heard and/or sang these songs?


Use the Assessment Rubric to assess students' peformance.

Extending the Learning

  • Explore other African-American spirituals.
  • Look for code words and phrases in modern music.
  • Write a story that uses Underground Railroad code words or phrases.
  • Create a “new” language that uses a unique set of code words and phrases.

Recommended Resources:

Extending the Learning

  • Explore other African-American spirituals.
  • Look for code words and phrases in modern music.
  • Write a story that uses Underground Railroad code words or phrases.
  • Create a “new” language that uses a unique set of code words and phrases.


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.

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Gladys Van Der Woude
Original Writer

Carol Parenzan Smalley

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