Skip To Main Content

Select a School

Madison Metropolitan School District

Follow the Drinking Gourd: Teacher's Guide

Expanded Description:

This is a live program in which the audience interacts with the planetarium instructor in order to explore astronomy concepts and historical concepts related to the song Follow the Drinking Gourd. Did the slaves use this song as a secret code to find their way to freedom in Canada? Or is it a song written to teach about and honor the brave men and women of that time? We don't know for sure, but we'll investigate and try to decode the song as we explore the daytime and nighttime sky.

Program Outline:

  1. Introduction to slavery
  2. Slavery conditions
  3. Sample slave narratives
  4. Underground railroad and Harriet Tubman
  5. Begin work to decode the first part of the song: "When the Sun comes back..."
  6. Observe the Sun's path across the sky for today, and compare to the path for other seasons
  7. Explore what a "drinking gourd" is, and the connection to the Big Dipper
  8. Transition to nighttime and find the Big Dipper
  9. Explore the current sky to find any visible planets and a few constellations
  10. Decode the rest of the song using visuals from the book "Follow the Drinking Gourd"
  11. Hear and sing the song
  12. Watch a dramatic reading of the children's book "Follow the Drinking Gourd"

General Concepts

  • Day/night: Earth rotating (spinning); objects' changing positions in the sky.
  • Seasonal changes in the sun's path.
  • We can see planets with the unaided eye: Earth below our feet, and the planets look like stars in the sky (students learn how to find them).
  • Finding star patterns and a few constellations
  • Big Dipper is always in the north half of the sky, and points to the North Star
  • North Star stays in the same spot in our sky even though the Earth is rotating
  • If you walk toward the North Star you'd be walking north
  • History is fun to investigate, but it can be difficult to find evidence about things that were a secret

Connecting to the Classroom

Students will be able to process and recall more of the discoveries they make in the planetarium if they are introduced to some of the concepts before they come to the planetarium. Activities and discussions which raise awareness of the sky would be helpful.

After the planetarium visit, it would be helpful to discuss and review the observations the students made in the planetarium. Have your students apply their new knowledge to activities which build on those observations made in the planetarium and/or verify them with observations in the real sky.

Activities you might consider doing in the classroom:

  • Daytime observations of the sun and moon as a class. Draw pictures or record observations as a class. Compare at different times of the day, and different times of the year.
  • Ask the students to go out with a parent and make observations at night. See if they can find the Big Dipper.
  • Read the book "Follow the Drinking Gourd" by Jeanette Winter.
  • Learn the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd":  sheet music
  • Read as a class some of the slave narratives (teachers should pre-read and select ahead of time); see also "Voices and Faces from the Collection" -- excerpts of these are used in the program. Another source of slave narratives.
  • See also the activities on our Instructional Resources page.

Vocabulary: some of the words the students will likely encounter

  • rotate (or spin)
  • seasons
  • explore
  • observe (observation)
  • constellation
  • constellation names of the current sky
  • compass directions (north, south, east, west)
  • slave
  • Underground Railroad
  • conductor
  • gourd