Lesson Plan

The C&O Canal, A Place of Refuge, Recreation, and Reflection: 4th Grade Lesson

Justice Douglas called the canal a refuge and a sanctuary

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Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
60 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
4.RI.1, 4.RI.2, 4.RI.3, 4.W.1, 4.W.1.a, 4.W.1.b, 4.W.1.c, 4.W.1.d
State Standards:
Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum for Social Studies
1.0 Political Science
Additional Standards:
College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words.

Essential Question

What would you do to save something you love?


In what ways does visiting the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park change my understanding of how I can connect with nature and our community's history?


The downloadable lesson plan pdf has a very organized layout of two lessons, including student materials/handouts as well as detailed teacher instructions. It can be used as a pre-visit activity or alone in the classroom as a social studies text.

Years after boats carrying goods ceased floating down the canal, one man would take a stand to save this national treasure from development and destruction. This man, Justice William O. Douglas, recognized that that the C&O Canal offered a place of refuge, recreation and reflection to all who took the opportunity to just “take a walk.” In this lesson, students take a walk with Justice Douglas and think about what they would do if a place they loved was threatened with development.

Enduring Understanding

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park provides educational and recreational opportunities to individuals, students and families who visit.  

Content Objective/Outcomes

The students will:
1) Describe how and why the C&O Canal is an important part of Maryland and our nation's history.
2) Describe the role of Justice William O. Douglas in preserving the C&O Canal for future generations. 
3) Analyze both primary and secondary sources as well as historical and contemporary photographs to gain multiple perspectives about historical events.

Literacy Objective/Outcomes

The students will:
1) Summarize information from a variety of sources on Justice William O. Douglas's mission to save the C&O Canal from development and destruction.
2) Use evidence from text to make and support decisions about important topics.
3) Write articulately and precisely to describe real world problems and persuade others to take action on implementing solutions.


The materials for this lesson include primary source materials such as photographs and a letter to The Washington Post by Justice Douglas, secondary source materials describing Justice Douglas's walk to preserve the C&O Canal, a Dilemma Resolution Accord worksheet for students, and a Shared Rubric assessment tool.  

Print materials for students.

Lesson Hook/Preview

Possibly watch a clip from Ken Burns' National Parks documentary, America's Best Idea, at http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/watch-video/#914. This will introduce the idea of National Parks and provide a visual framework for the upcoming lessons.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal winds its way through Maryland along the north shore of the Potomac River for 184.5 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, to Georgetown, Washington D.C. From its groundbreaking on July 4, 1828, "The Great National Project" would test the innovativeness, adaptability and determination of the men who planned, built, worked and lived on the Canal. Despite the trials and tribulations encountered during its construction and operation, the C&O Canal thrived for almost a hundred years as a water route transporting goods such as coal, bricks and iron between the Appalachian Mountain Region and the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Today, the C&O Canal provides opportunities for all who visit to learn about the transportation heritage of a bygone era, the power of human ingenuity, the role of change and adaptability in life's daily struggle, and the importance of seeking one's own personal place of refuge, recreation and reflection. 

In this learning experience, students learn about the how one man's determination to save the C&O Canal from development and destruction led to the creation of a National Historical Park. Students will also learn that nature speaks to all of us in some way and that it is critical that we take a few moments in our lives to enjoy the amazing places that surround us. Students will learn that the C&O Canal offers all visitors a chance to appreciate our past while simultaneously consider the prospects of our future. Most importantly, through this learning experience students will understand how the decisions we make can have a lasting impact.


Lesson 1

Introduce the lesson with the question, "What would you do to save something that you loved or that was important to you?" Allow students to think for a minute or two and then do a pair-share with another classmate. After the pair-share, allow students to share what their partner would save and one action their pair-share partner stated they would undertake to save what they loved/found important. Create a running list of ideas as students share out and note similarities some ideas or the uniqueness of others. 

Tell students they will examine some photographs (see Photographic Analysis in the printable lesson plan). In their analysis, be sure students in teams of 3-4 verbally describe and take careful notes on:

1) Their first impressions as they look at the photograph
2) The feelings that strike them they view/analyze this photograph
3) What they might be doing/thinking if they were standing in this place

At the end of the lesson, have students share out answers and create an idea map/web that creates a class record of thoughts/ideas and links similar ideas together. Explain that tomorrow they will have a dilemma to solve that involves this place that you find so special. They will need to come with an open mind and a willingness to look carefully at all the evidence, just like a judge would in a courtroom.

Lesson 2

Review yesterday's lesson by quickly re-examining the photographs that they analyzed yesterday and the idea map/web that was assembled at the end of the lesson. Set the stage for the inquiry-based dilemma activity by telling students that today they are going to be reading about a very serious dilemma in our community. This dilemma has to be resolved and it is their job today to resolve the dilemma based on the information they are provided. They will need to think about all of the pros and cons of the decision they will make. They will also need to carefully consider how people in the community will feel about the decision they have made.

After assigning students into teams of 2, 3 or 4, pass out the text "A New Future for the C&O Canal" (see printable lesson plan) and allow students to complete an independent, silent first reading of the text as way to familiarize themselves with the dilemma. After this first reading, have students complete an independent close analytical reading of the text. During this second reading they should highlight important ideas in the text, mark important pieces of evidence that they might use to make a decision with their group and make notes about thoughts and ideas they are having about the dilemma.

After the close reading, allow group members to discuss their thoughts and ideas with another. Remind students that as a group they must weigh the evidence carefully and come to a consensus about how they will resolve the dilemma. Have groups record their ideas on the "Dilemma Resolution Accord" worksheet (see printable lesson plan).

After all groups have made a decision and completed the "Dilemma Resolution Accord," call all students together in a central location and have the groups that decided to build the road on one side and the groups that decided to preserve the C&O Canal on the other side. Allow one member from each group to present their case in a debate style format. As the teacher moderates the discussion, they should record key ideas or pieces of evidence shared during the mini-debate. After all groups have shared discuss what you observed as the moderator/facilitator. Remind students that there is no right or wrong answer to this dilemma but that decisions that are made often can have long-term positive and/or negative consequences. 


Share with students a letter written by Justice William O. Douglas to The Washington Post on January 19, 1954. Explain that Justice Douglas, alongside many devoted citizens, fought long and hard to preserve the C&O Canal from development and destruction. Read to students "Justice Douglas: One Man Can Make a Difference." Have students share out their initial reactions to Justice Douglas's actions how it relates to the dilemma they just explored. Also, have students discuss what lessons they can learn from Justice Douglas's actions. Lastly, have students watch a clip from Ken Burns' National Parks documentary, America's Best Idea, at http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/watch-video/#914 and discuss how ordinary people made a huge impact in preserving and protecting the land that would become part of the National Park Service.  


canal, towpath, refuge, lobby, debate

Assessment Materials

Use the "Shared Inquiry Rubric" (See printable lesson guide for a template) to keep track of all students that participate in the discussion and assess the depth/complexity of their thoughts/ideas.

Enrichment Activities

After completing the site visit to the C&O Canal, have students identify and research a problem in their own community that needs to be resolved. Have students write a persuasive/argument piece that offers logical and reasonable solutions to be problem as well as encourages others to take action to resolve the dilemma

Additional Resources

Self-guided visit to the C&O Canal

Before students begin their walk on the towpath, show them two photographs of the C&O Canal – one historic and one contemporary. Remind students of Justice William O. Douglas's walk to save the canal so that all who visit could have a place of refuge, recreation and reflection. Also tell students of the famous words that created our first National Park, Yellowstone: "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people." As they walk, have students record in a notebook and/or with photographs, things that they noticed that speak to why the canal is such a special place and why William O. Douglas fought so hard to save the canal from development and destruction. After returning to the starting point, have students share their observations and discuss how the quote "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people" also fits the C&O Canal.   

Related Lessons or Education Materials

Click here to view the 45-minute movie by Ken Burn's called "This is America," which gives more examples of ordinary citizens working to preserve America's special places.

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