Day 1 - Read Aloud Selections: Ellen Levine's "If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad" and Jeannette Winter's "Follow the Drinking Gourd."
These interactive children's book narratives give young readers a glimpse at what it was like to be an enslaved black. Levine uses a Q&A format to help children make text-to-self-to-world connections. Winter's work takes children on a narrative journey with Peg Leg Joe, a white abolitionist who helped fugitive slaves reach freedom at the Canadian border. Included at the end of this historical fiction work is a poem/song, based on 19
century amateur Texan folklorist H. B. Park's alleged song discovery, "Foller the Drinking Gou'd." Although not written by African American authors, these literary works are steeped in the African American experience and generally serve as a good source of background info.
Day 2 – Poetry Selections:
Eloise Greenfield's "Harriet Tubman" and Jeannette Winter's "Follow the Drinking Gourd."
Ask the children to imagine what it must have felt like to be a black fugitive, making one's escape along the Underground Railroad—what does escaping to freedom sound like? Invite children to close their eyes as you read the opening lines of Greenfield's poem. Read with fervor, maintaining an even, medium speed and rhythmic pace as you proceed. The use of monosyllabic words helps build momentum as the poem progresses. Take advantage of the wording; dramatically read the second verse and intensify the speed. Maintain this pace through the second and fourth stanzas. The final stanza is repetitive of the first. Return to the fervent, medium speed, and rhythmic pace to bring the poem to a climatic end:
"Harriet Tubman didn't take no stuff
Wasn't scared of nothing neither
Didn't come in this world to be no slave
And wasn't going to stay one either…"
The rhythmic cadence of Greenfield's poem helps students make metaphoric connections. My third graders noted that within the first four lines they heard boldness and bravery. As the poem progressed, the sound of the words evoked a sense of fear, perseverance, and urgency in Harriet's making her escape. I asked my children to listen to the poem once more, having them target a key aspect of the poem that helped to evoke this feeling. The children listened intently and began to identify how the use of monosyllabic words helped to create a fast-paced rhythm. "I can see and hear Harriet ducking and dodging through thick woods along the paths of the Underground Railroad," Trayonna shared. Craig noted, "I can hear Harriet Tubman rushing to get back down south to help others escape." Breyona commented, "Escape sounds strong like Miss Tubman and MY Gramma—they don't take no stuff!" The children's feedback revealed the use of key vocabulary coupled with the movement, rhyme, cadence and overall sound of the poem helped them connect with the storyline and spirit of the reading selection.
The folkloric poem/song included in Winter's book reveals that not all whites embraced the dehumanizing institution of slavery, but often took a stance against it. Each line is rich in enigmatically descriptive—and in some instances dialectic--language, cadence, rhythm, and rhyme, with repetitive lines strategically interspersed in between stanzas. (Refer to Page 32 in Jeannette Winter's book or download the wording to the song at http://www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/Appendix_Teachers_Guide.htm.) Before introducing the song, invite students to once again close their eyes and listen closely to the read words. Begin slowly, in a chant-like manner, maintaining this pace at each subsequent "Follow the drinking gourd" refrain. Quicken the tempo at "For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom" and slightly relax the speed for the remaining stanzas.
Children are attentive to the sporadic, fast-to-slow movement with which the piece is read. My students compared it with the sound of someone running, and then walking briskly from one place to another. They too note that the experienced cadence made them feel the journey was not easy, that there were obstacles in the way. When we got to the line "Left foot, peg foot traveling on, follow the drinking gourd
," the children began to rhythmically stomp their feet as if they were trudging along. It was amazing to see the movement of the work internalized!
At this point, introduce the actual song. Young learners will quickly catch on to the melody. My students began using soft, slow voices, almost as if singing a lullaby to an infant. Their voices are intensified at the chorus, increasing in speed and intensity as they neared the line, "Left foot, peg foot…" We sang the song several times at the students' request. As soon as we finished, Achintya noted that he heard "fear and bravery" in the rhythm. Tiazeé shared she could hear hearts pounding, slaves whispering, and the quail calling—especially at the verse where the runaways neared the river. The children too noted that they heard excitement and anxiety in the verses, indicating that because of the cadence of the piece, they could hear and see the fugitive slaves making their way through the dark woods, hiding from those slavecatchers.
Day 3. Include copies of each poem in the Prosody Station for ongoing review and practice. Have students revisit the poems to enhance prosody skills and to reexamine the overall theme and main idea of each poetic work. To extend this activity, have children sing the lyrics to "Follow the Drinking Gourd," with select students role-playing the action and spirit of the song. (African American folksingers Kim and Reggie Harris' version on CD serves as an engaging complement; purchase or download a copy, and include it in your listening center along with printouts of the wording.) Additionally, include copies of Julius' Lester's "From Slave Ship to Freedom Road" in an independent reading center to provide additional background info for leisurely reading and informational purposes.