Lesson Plan

A Journey on the C&O Canal

Image of the canal
Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
3.RL.1, 3.RL.3, 3.RL.4, 3.RL.7, 4.RL.1, 4.RL.3, 4.RL.4, 4.RL.7, 5.RL.1, 5.RL.3, 5.RL.4, 5.RL.7
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


Students will read and discuss A Journey on the C&O Canal in order to:

1) Learn why the C&O Canal is an amazing accomplishment in Maryland's history;

2) Learn why the C&O Canal is especially important to Washington County, Maryland; 

3) Understand more about the genre of historical fiction and how it can teach us real information with characters who didn't actually live but could have; and

4) Describe what a typical nine-year old canal boy and family were like in the late 1800's.


The lesson was designed for Washington County, Maryland, students who visit the Williamsport Visitor Center at the Cushwa Basin; but it is applicable for other locations along the canal as well. It is suited for students in third, fourth, or fifth grades. 



Use this lesson as a stand-alone or as a pre-activity to a canal visit. This lesson addresses a host of indictors and objectives in both reading and social studies. Students will learn why the C&O Canal is an amazing accomplishment in Maryland’s history, understand more about the genre of historical fiction, and describe what a typical nine-year old canal boy and family were like in the late 1800’s.

Teachers may want to print out the lesson materials ahead of time. These include a printable lesson plan, Power Point presentation and notes for the teacher, journal experts with a map for the students, and a vocabulary list.


Print version of fictional journal

Download Michael's Journal

Fictional journal to be used in class

Download Journal powerpoint

Reference notes for the teacher

Download Teacher's Notes

Lesson Hook/Preview

Ask: How would you like to live on a boat and travel up and down a canal for 8 months every year? Give some talking time and time to share. Explain that many families who lived and worked on the C&O Canal did just that.


1) Begin with the power point to build students' background information (Note talking points and additional background information on the notes below each slide.)

2) Give one copy of the journal, A Journey on the C&O Canal, and a map to each student. Ask them to write the location names on the map as they read the journal. You may wish to copy the vocabulary words on the back of the map. Cue students to other pieces of historical fiction they have read. Make sure they understand key elements of this genre, and have opportunities to self-select other pieces of historical fiction.

3) The readability of the journal is early Grade 5; consider how you will support readers who are not able to read the text independently (shared reading, partner reading).

4) Process through the text, sharing background information and allowing students to process information and make personal connections along the way.

5) Review the key points of the stated objectives with questions such as, "Why is the C&O Canal an amazing accomplishment?" and "What have we learned about Michael that makes him a typical 9 year old boy?"


aqueduct – a bridge filled with water allowing canal boats to cross rivers or other difficult terrain.

calico – a colorful cloth that has black, cream, and orange markings, as in a calico cat.

canal – an artificial waterway for navigation, for drainage, or for irrigating land.

coal – a black stony form of fossil carbon that can be burned like wood.

cargo – the different materials and objects carried by canal boats.

ferry – (v.) to transport (people, vehicles, or goods) by boat across a body of water.

(v.) to cross (a body of water) by a ferry.

(n.) a boat used to transport people, vehicles, or goods by boat across a body of water.

hatch- an opening, as in the deck of a ship, in the roof or floor; the cover for such an opening; a ship's compartment.

hinny – the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey.

lock – a part of a canal with gates at each end where boats are raised or lowered to different water levels.

lock house – a house built near a boat lock in which the lock keeper lived.

lock keeper – a person hired to open and close the gates when a boat passed through a lock.

mule – the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey.

rudder – a flat, movable piece that can be moved from side to side at the back of a boat to steer it.

sandstone - a common sedimentary rock used for building, composed largely of sand grains, mainly quartz, held together by silica, lime, etc.

tiller – a lever for turning the rudder of a boat.

towline – a rope connecting mules or horses to boats for towing.

towpath – a trail on the side of the canal where the mules walked towing the boat.


Assessment Materials

When the journal has been completed, you may wish to have students respond in writing to any of the questions, or additional questions that you develop. Make other materials and websites available for students to continue to learn more about the C&O Canal.

Related Lessons or Education Materials

This lesson introduces students to the things they will see when they visit the canal — the towpath, lockhouses and locks, and aqueducts. It also describes the Paw Paw Tunnel. It helps students understand the daily life of families on board canal boats, including caring for the mules.

Contact Information

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Last updated: May 18, 2018