Lesson Plan

A Nation Divided: Elementary School Lesson Plan

2 densely tree-covered mountains loom in the background behind tall green trees and grass.

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Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
5.RI.1, 5.RI.3, 5.RI.4, 5.RI.5
State Standards:
Georgia SS4H5 a & d.
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts.

Essential Question

a. How do our individual actions sometimes lead to larger consequences?
b. How did the actions of 2 people create a wider gap between the north and the south?


a. Students will read, analyze, and apply information in primary documents to formulate reasons the United States was divided before the Civil War.
b. Students will identify Uncle Tom's Cabin and John Brown's Raid and explain how each related to the Civil War.


Tensions grew for many years before the first shots rang out at Fort Sumter, signaling the beginning of the Civil War. There was a clear division between the north and the south's perspectives of this young country. The Missouri Compromise, The Compromise of 1850, The Dred Scott Decision, and the 1860's election did not occur in a matter of days of each other. These events spanned forty years. To people in the south, those long years of dissatisfaction intensified when Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860. This was a final straw that led to several southern states seceding from the Union.

Slavery was a big reason for this tension. The people in the North had many different opinions about African Americans. However, most of them could agree that slavery was unacceptable. The people in the South also had many different opinions about African Americans. However, most of them could agree that slavery was necessary to uphold their economy. Without slavery, they would not be able to keep their Southern way of life.

Two abolitionists, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown, put everything on the line to fight against slavery. Their actions infuriated people in the South. Their actions told people in the South that Northerners would do anything to ruin their way of life.


Teachers can choose individual or all activities depending on their goals, available time, and their students. It is important to read through all the material and webpages before beginning the activities. 

Lesson Hook/Preview

Encourage students to close their eyes and think about a time when someone or something made them so angry that they had a major emotional reaction to it. Give students time to think about the incident in their mind. With their eyes closed, ask students to raise their hands and give one or two words to describe their feelings during that incident. (Emphasize that you don't want to know about the incident; you just want the feelings.) Write the words on the board as they say them out loud. 

Instruct students to open their eyes and read the words on the board. Explain that they will now learn about two people who had these same feelings about slavery just before the Civil War.


Activity 1: Uncle Tom's Cabin

  1. Project the cover of the primary document, Uncle Tom's Cabin on a board in front of the class.
  2. Instruct students to write down the title and the author in their notebooks. 
  3. Instruct students to tell the person directly to their right what they think this book is about. Ask for volunteers to share answers.
  4. Project and expand the following paragraph in Chapter 5, Image 37. The paragraph begins with, "This is God's curse on slavery!"
  5. Ask a volunteer to read the paragraph with emphasis.
  6. Question to ask class: Instruct them to respond, "I think....because the text says..."
    1. What do we know about the person who said this? (Possible answers: I think it is an older lady because the text says 'when I was a girl.' I think she doesn't like slavery because the text says 'it is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours.' I think she believes God is punishing them because the text says 'this is God's curse on slavery!' 
  7. Project and expand the following paragraph in Chapter 1, Image 16. The paragraph begins with, "Now ,they say," said Haley, assuming a candid and confidential air..."
  8. Ask a volunteer to read the paragraph with emphasis.
  9. Questions to ask class: Instruct them to respond, "I think....because the text says..."
    1. What does Haley think about slavery? (Possible answer: I think Haley believes slavery is a business because the text says 'I never could do things up the way some fellers manage the business' then describes how a slave dying was 'clear waste...of a thousand dollars' or that 'it was bad policy-damages the article.' )
    2. What does Haley believe the humane thing about slavery is? (Possible answer: I think Haley believes the humane thing is to keep moms and kids together in slavery because the text says 'I've seen 'em as would pull a woman's child out of her arms, and set him up to sell, and she screechin' like mad all the time; -very bad policy.')
  10. Finally, project information about the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, for the class. Read the paragraphs to the class. 
  11. Instruct the students to write a paragraph in their notebooks about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Be sure to include who wrote it, why the book infuriated the south, and why the book infurated the north for a different reason.

Activity 2: John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry

  1. Arrange the students into groups of four. Instruct them to read the NPS article John Brown's Raid together as a group. 
  2. Each group will, then, be assigned one section of the article. (Sections are: Preparing for War; Striking A Blow for Freedom; and The Aftermath.) If there are more groups, you can split the second section into the different dates. 
  3. Students will read their section to the class. Therefore, they need to practice and decide whether one or all of the students in the group will take turns. They should practice reading with annunciation, inflection, and proper pronunciation.
  4. When ready, groups read their section in order of the article.
  5. Place a large piece of paper (ie: poster paper) in each corner of the room. Each paper has a different question. Questions: 
    1. Who were John Brown and the raiders?
    2. Why did they go to Harper's Ferry, Virginia?
    3. What happened during the raid?
    4. Why would the action of a small group of men make people in the South infuritated?
  6. Provide each group with a marker. Each group needs a different color. Assign each group to a corner of the room. 
  7. Explain that the groups will have 4 minutes to write down their answer on the poster. At the buzzer (or whistle...or secret word...) the groups will move to the next poster simultaneously.
  8. Instruct each group to read their current question aloud so everyone knows all the questions. Explain that there are several ways to expand on the answers for each question. If a group is stuck, they should refer to the article or their notebook for what was happening during this time period.
  9. Walk around the room to support groups in coming up with ideas.
  10. When all 4 groups answered all the questions, instruct each each to tape their current poster at the front of the room so everyone can see the answers.
  11. Discuss the answers as a class. Ensure that all students understand the frustration people felt in the north and in the south. People would go to great lengths to prove their point. The failed attempt at Harper's Ferry was proof to people in the south that people in the north wanted to ruin their way of life. 

Activity 3: Peace vs. Violence

  1. Project the primary document, A Letter from Mrs. Child to John Brown on a board for the class.
  2. Share with the class that Mrs. Lydia Maria Child was a private citizen who wrote a letter of support to John Brown while he was in prison after the raid. She also wrote letters to Virginia's governor and other Virginia citizens after the raid. 
  3. Invite student volunteers to read the letter aloud to the class. 
  4. Reread the second paragraph which begins, "Believing in peace principles..."
  5. Discuss this paragraph with the students. Some possible questions are:
    1. What was the "method you chose to advance the cause of freedom"?
    2. What were Brown's "generous intentions"?
    3. What does Mrs. Child mean when she said, "I reverence you for the humanity which tempered your zeal."?
    4. Why did Mrs. Child write this letter to Mr. Brown if she really believed in peace and non-violence?
  6. Compare the methods of Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown of sharing their frustration with slavery in the South. Ms. Stowe wrote a book while Mr. Brown kidnapped individuals which led to several deaths.
  7. Encourage students to think of other peaceful ways Mr. Brown could have expressed his frustration. 
  8. Instruct the students to re-write Mrs. Child's letter to John Brown. Their letter should continue her belief in peaceful principles and provide at least two alternatives to the raid.
  9. Share a letter writing rubric with the students before they begin. Explain that the final letter must be typed in proper formal letter writing format.


  • Gild (Excerpt 1: Uncle Tom's Cabin) - to give a false sense of brilliance
  • Candid (Excerpt 2: Uncle Tom's Cabin) - truthful and straightforward; blunt
  • Humane (Excerpt 2: Uncle Tom's Cabin) - having or showing compassion
  • Infuriate (NPS Article: Harriet Beecher Stowe) - make someone extremely angry and impatient
  • Coup-de-main (NPS Article: Harriet Beecher Stowe) - a sudden surprise attack
  • Stereotypes (NPS Article: Harriet Beecher Stowe) - a widely agreed but oversimplified idea of a particular type of person or thing
  • Abolitionists (NPS Article: Harriet Beecher Stowe & John Brown) - a person who wants to get rid of a practice or an institution, particularly slavery
  • Armory (NPS Article: John Brown) - a place where weapons are made and stored
  • Militia (NPS Article: John Brown) - a military group from a local area that is made up of non-professional soldiers
  • Cause (NPS Article: John Brown) - a principle that a person is prepared to defend or support
  • Antagonistic (Mrs. Child's Letter) - showing or feeling active opposition or hostility toward someone or something
  • Reverence (Mrs. Child's Letter) - deep respect for someone or something
  • Tempered (Mrs. Child's Letter) - made less intense or violent

Assessment Materials

Activity Assessments

Activity 1:

  • Informal Assessment - Provide feedback for students who appropriately or inappropriately respond to questions with text citations.
  • Collect notes about Uncle Tom's Cabin - Provide points for correct identification of the book and author, as well as appropriate responses for how this book affected the North and the South.

Activity 2: 

  • Informal Assessment - Provide feedback for students who appropriately or inappropriately respond to questions with text citations.
  • Informal Assessment - Provide feedback for students reading aloud with appropriate inflection.

Activity 3:

  • Collect alternate history letters - Provide points for appropriate letter format, matching voice of Mrs. Child, as well as explanation of two alternate peaceful solutions to the raid.

Enrichment Activities

  1. Students can read John Brown's response to Mrs. Child. In this letter, he requests Mrs. Child provide money to his family instead of tending to him in prison.
  2. Students can recall a time they felt infuriated. Instruct them to write a short story or poem describing the incident. 

Additional Resources

NPS articles:

John Brown's life
John Brown's Fort
Remembering John Brown
"I had rather die than be a slave" (information about the raiders who joined John Brown)
Harriet Beecher Stowe House (Part of the Aboard the Underground Railroad series)
Harriet Beecher Stowe & Henry Longfellow

NPS Videos:

A NPS Ranger discusses Causes of the Civil War
Uncle Tom's Cabin between timestamps 2:48 - 6:30
John Brown between timestamps 10:10 - 11:00 and 15:43 - 18:30.

Related Lessons or Education Materials

Other lesson in this series from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park:

A Nation Divided: Middle School Lesson
A Nation Divided: High School Lesson
War Has Been Declared: Elementary Lesson
War Has Been Declared: Middle School Lesson

Other lessons about the Civil War from Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park:

Pack Like a Soldier Virtual Program
Civilian War Experience: Battle of Kennesaw Mountain
What Would You Do? Plotting and Planning Strategies of the Civil War

Contact Information

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Last updated: October 5, 2021