ARTSEDGE Lessons for Elementary School

What Does This Song Really Say?

What role did the Underground Railroad and coded messages play in slaves’ efforts to be free in early United States history?


Key Staff

Classroom teacher with opportunities to collaborate with the music teacher.

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Applying Vocabulary, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture
Creative Thinking: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, Communication and Collaboration


Students listen to, sing, and read the lyrics to various African American spirituals. They discuss the coded messages in the songs, and the purpose of these codes. Students then write original coded messages, and present their work in a performance format.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Sing and/or listen to songs that are representative of spirituals sung by slaves
  • Read lyrics of songs, and interpret the meaning of the lyrics, in terms of their cultural significance
  • Write coded messages, and include interpretation
  • Create an opportunity to share their coded messages through reading, drawing, a PowerPoint presentation, or another medium

Teaching Approach

Arts Integration

Teaching Methods

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Discovery Learning
  • Multimedia Instruction
  • Problem-Solving

Assessment Type

Performance Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • Projector
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • Internet Access
  • Mobile Media Player
  • Speakers
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should be familiar with the Underground Railroad as well as with the coded messages inherent in Negro spirituals.

It would be helpful if the teacher played either the piano or the guitar.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should understand the role of slavery in antebellum and Civil War era US History.

Physical Space



  • Large Group Instruction
  • Small Group Instruction


  • Test internet connection
  • Set up LCD projector (if using) and speakers
  • Procure spirituals listed below or stream them from the internet
  • Make relevant photocopies

Accessibility Notes

Students with physical disabilities may need modified movements.


Resources in Reach

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

Build Knowledge


The goal of this activity is to explore the experience of a slave trying to escape through the Underground Railroad.

1. Initiate a discussion about slavery. Have students imagine what it would be like to be a slave. Discuss how it would feel to be a slave—to lose one's freedom and become the property of someone else, and to be separated from friends and family.

2. Present the interactive activity at the National Geographic site, The Underground Railroad. This activity can be presented on a large screen with an LCD projector as a whole class activity. It can also be completed in a computer lab with students working together as partners.

3. If the Underground Railroad interactive activity is presented to the class as a whole, have a student read the introductory paragraph. When the students are given a choice (i.e., choose to escape, choose to stay), have each student vote and explain his or her choice. Allow approximately 20 minutes to complete the activity as a group.

4. If the activity is presented in the computer lab, group the students in pairs. Let them explore the activity, making as many choices as possible. Tell students that they will be asked to name one thing they learned on the site. Allow approximately 20 minutes to complete the activity. If students finish early, they may explore the additional information on this Web site.

5. Have students to state one thing they learned through this activity. Tell students that they will learn a musical secret message the slaves used to escape through the Underground Railroad.

Build Knowledge

The goal of this activity is to learn a spiritual, discuss its significance during slavery time, and begin to learn the "coded messages" embedded in the song.

1. List the following code words on the board: freedom train, gospel train, conductor, station, station master, and agent. Give students one minute to read the list and determine what the words have in common.

2. Once the class determines that all of the words are related to trains, ask students how they would feel if they were not allowed to ride on a train. Ask them why they think spirituals would describe leaving on a train. Lead a discussion to explore answers to these questions for about five minutes.

3. Tell students that the words discussed were codes used by slaves to communicate so the slave masters would not understand their plans for escape. Slaves were not allowed to talk, but they could sing; therefore, many slaves disguised their communications through song. The spiritual is a type of song that served many functions for slaves. These songs reflected their desire to be free and often told other slaves how they could escape.

The Underground Railroad has been described as "silent and secret" and "running on silent rails in the dark of night." People developed codes, passwords, and secret signals, to be used by runaways and "investors" in the Underground Railroad.

4. Give students a list of code words and phrases (some examples can be found in The Underground Railroad in Action: Communication and Codes from the National Park Service). Ask students to guess the meaning of each Underground Railroad code word/phrase. Ask them to share their responses, and then clarify any misinterpretations.

5. Distribute copies of the The Lyrics of Spirituals handout located within the Resource Carousel. Tell students to read the lyrics and search for code words and phrases, while you play the spiritual entitled "This Train." Play the song two to three times, either via a recording or on the piano or guitar. Ask the students to tell you what the lyrics of "This Train" mean. Students can interpret individual words (i.e., train, glory, sleepers, etc.), or they can describe the phrases (i.e., "this train don’t carry sleepers, this train").

6. Clarify any confusion. For example, "sleepers" could refer to a sleeping car, but in the context of this song, it means someone who wants to escape, but doesn’t want to endure the hardship (i.e., "wake me up when it's over"). "Righteous peoples" refers to people who are doing what is right, in spite of the difficulties involved.

7. Teach "This Train" to the class. Sing each phrase in the first verse and have the class repeat after you. Now sing the second verse in the same way. Finally, sing the entire song. For variation, have the boys sing one line, and the girls the next, or have a small group stand and sing a phrase or a verse, then alternate with another small group.

(Note: You may substitute any spiritual or freedom song for "This Train." Songs that have a simple and direct tune and lyrics that repeat three or more times would be the easiest to learn and/or song. "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands" and "This Little Light of Mine" may be used; however, the meaning of these spirituals may be more difficult for fourth grade students to discern.)

8. Give students five minutes to look for coded messages in the lyrics to "Woke Up This Mornin'." Discuss findings as a class.

9. Tell students they will listen to another spiritual and begin working on their own coded messages.


The goal of this activity is to have students interpret the coded message in another spiritual and begin to write their own coded messages to share with the class.

1. Listen to "Wade in the Water." In this style of spiritual, there is a chorus (music and words that repeat throughout a song). The words repeat three times, with an explanation at the end.

2. Explain to students that when the words repeat in a song, this means they are very important, and something for the slave to remember—it could be the difference between life and death. For example, the phrase "wade in the water" is repeated several times. Ask students to consider this phrase. Why would slaves need to wade (go into) the water? (Slave owners used dogs to “sniff out" the trail of their escaped slaves; the dogs could not follow the scent into the water.)

3. Divide the class into groups of three or four. Distribute the What Does this Song Really Say? handout located within the Resource Carousel. Assign each group a different phrase from the song "Wade in the Water." Give the groups five minutes to write an interpretation of the assigned phrase. (It is okay if more than one group has the same phrase, depending on the size of your class.)

4. Ask groups to share their interpretations with the entire class, in the order of the song. Record each interpretation on the board as it is articulated. When all groups have shared their findings, read the entire interpretation of the song.


In this activity, students will write their own coded messages.

1. Choose the variation of the activity that is most appropriate for your class:

A. Keep students in the same small groups, and have them write their own original coded message. It must be three to five sentences, using the code words and phrases given. They can even make up their own, but it must follow the general “clues,” using words that have meanings from the religious and railroad terminology. They must also write the interpretation. Students will have the rest of this period and part of the next (if needed) to complete this activity. Then each group will share their coded messages with the rest of the class, and the class is tasked with interpreting the meaning.

B. Keep the students in groups; however, give them the messages they need to put in code. For example: “I plan to escape tonight. Meet me by the river. The leader will show us the way.” Provide students with three or four different messages, and the students should figure out how to convey the same meaning in code. Each group should share their codes with the class, and the class is tasked with interpreting the meaning.

2. For either variation of the activity, students must work cooperatively and write their coded messages using correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation.


Assess your student's work using the Assessment Rubric located within the Resource Carousel.


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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Daniella Garran
Original Writer

Anita Lambert
Original Writer

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