Lesson Plan


CD box containing music. Picture from Stephen Marc’s book Passage on the Underground Railroad.
Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.1, 6-8.RH.2, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.4
Additional Standards:
National Council for the Social Studies
I: Culture.
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. 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.

Essential Question

What role could music play in the lives of enslaved people?
In what ways does the MUSIC OF ENSLAVED PEOPLE communicate the basic facts of bondage?
What specific facts and truths can be learned from such music?
Can art communicate truths in a way that more straight forward communication cannot?


Students will learn about the theory of coded spirituals.
Students will learn to interpret lyrics from various points of view.
Correctly identify metaphors from selected African American spirituals.
Correctly explain the meaning of metaphors from selected African American spirituals.
Develop their own metaphors.
Explain the historical practice of coded spirituals, including the reasons for its development and use.


This is the fifth set of lessons in a multi lesson unit.

It is based on the two-cd set Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Freedom, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad, available from the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, 916 North Peters Street, New Orleans, La, 70116. www.nps.gov/jazz
The Unit uses freely available documents that are in the public domain, as well as musical selections from Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Freedom, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad. If a document is used it is found on a separate page along with a link to the source.
Please be sure to share the source with students.


  • Two-cd set Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Freedom, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad
  • Lyrics to selected songs (provided here).
  • Some means of playing an audio cd.
  • Copies for students of various public domain readings.



In this lesson students use four African American spirituals to explore the concepts of metaphor and coded spirituals, and to examine the struggle for freedom. The lesson uses the two cd set Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Freedom, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad (available from the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, 916 North Peters Street, New Orleans, La., 70116). www.nps.gov/jazz

The lessons designed to accompany the cd set can stand alone or can be used as part of a more extensive unit exploring the experience of enslavement, resistance, escape, and the Underground Railroad. They can also be used in conjunction with the cd/lesson plans designed for Songs of the Lower Mississippi Delta, which can be obtained from the above address. Those lesson plans relate to slavery and to the American Civil War.


If previous lessons were done, students should now be familiar with the process of examining the music.


These are liner notes prepared by the National Park Service that explain background and historical information on the songs.


This is a worksheet that is partially filled in for completion by the students. It also includes an answer key.

Download WORKSHEET- Lesson 5-Coded Spirituals

This is a worksheet like that prepared for completion by students, but it does not include any suggested answers. As a result there is no key.


This sheet gives suggested questions for discussion and possible answers.

Download DISCUSSION TIPS- Lesson 5- Coded Spirituals

This contains a brief overview of the theory of coded spirituals with examples.

Download SHORT PARAGRAPH on Coded Spirituals.

These are the lyrics for consideration and analysis by the students.

Download LYRICS

Worksheet set up in a multiple choice mode, but otherwise identical to WORKSHEET- Lesson 5-Coded Spirituals


Lesson Hook/Preview

  1. Teacher should choose one or two songs that are most likely to interest the students, and play those as the students enter the class.
  2. When class is settled, have a short discussion about the songs. 
  • What were their reactions?
  • What was the song about?
  • In what era did the songs originate?
  • What facts or emotions did the songs communicate?


Introduce students to the concepts of Metaphor and Coded Spirituals.


(This could be done as a group activity with groups sharing their answers) 

  • Ask students to define the term Metaphor. 
  • Project or write their definition or definitions on a board. 
  • After discussion, provide the given definition. 
  • Ask them to define the term Coded Spirituals.(See objectives) They could be asked to first define the term Spirituals. Then discuss the idea of Coded spirituals. (See objectives) 
  • Project or read to them the short paragraph on Coded Spirituals.(See below) 
  • After discussion, project or write the given definition of Coded Spirituals. 
  • Discuss the extent to which their definitions of the term were correct.



A spiritual is a religious song, often in the Christian African American tradition, which expresses ideas of a personal closeness and relationship with God. African American spirituals often make use of certain musical idioms. Among these are “call and response” in which one phrase is answered with another. Another characteristic is the use of “syncopated rhythm”, the accenting of a beat that would not normally be accented or the absence of a beat where one would usually be accented. Spirituals are highly emotional songs. They often express intense feelings of joy and sorrow. It is also common in African American spirituals to compare the believer or the church to figures from the Old Testament. In African American history, especially during the experience of enslavement, spirituals were sometime coded, meaning that the meaning was intentionally disguised from the slave holders and other whites through use of words or phrases understood by the singers, but not by the slave holders. An example would be to refer to the Free States as “the promised land” or the slave holders as “Pharaoh”. Historians still debate the extent to which spirituals were intentionally coded. In any case, listeners often interpreted lyrics that referred to the suffering of biblical heroes as referencing their own personal suffering and drew strength from such songs.

  • Play the musical selections for the students to create discussion. Depending on the class, you may wish to distribute lyrics at this point. SEE MATERIALS SECTION FOR DISCUSSION TIPS, SUGGESTED ANSWERS, ETC.


  1. Steal Away to Jesus (in the Midnight Hour). This is selection #3, NOT selection 10. 
  2. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Selection #7 
  3. Daniel. Selection #13. 
  • Play the song.

  • Ask students to name metaphors that they noticed in the lyrics. ∙ Their answers can be listed on a white board or a projected computer document. 
  • Wade in the Water. Selection # 4 NOT selection 12. Repeat the above process. 

When having the discussions, use your judgment as to the extent to which you should correct their misconceptions and tell them which choices are correct. It can be advisable to point out one or two correct responses and one or two incorrect responses so they have models to guide them.



Now that the students have a grasp of the concepts of Metaphor and Coded Spirituals they can do a graded activity that will assess their understanding as well as give them practice in both identifying and understanding metaphor. The worksheet has items inserted for the students to consider. An ANSWER KEY is provided for the worksheet. You could also create an answer bank if it is believed that such an aid would be useful to the students. SEE WORKSHEET UNDER BOTH MATERIALS AND ASSESSMENTS. If lyrics have not yet been distributed, they should be distributed at this point.

A BLANK copy of the worksheet is available under MATERIALS.


  • Graded sheets can be returned to students for discussion. Alternatively, students could exchange papers for grading. Correct answers should be discussed. It is also possible that students will discover answers that are as legitimate as those given on the key. However, in general since students were often told which song contained the answer, this may not happen to a very great extent. 
  • Students can now do the enrichment activity “Modern Song Coding”. SEE INSTRUCTIONS UNDER ENRICHMENT SECTION ON THIS SITE
  •  For further extension, ask students to share/perform their songs. This could be done individually or in groups chosen by the students or the teacher.


  • Metaphor: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that normally denotes one object is used to denote another to suggest a similarity. For example: “Drowning in money” to denote being extremely rich.

  • Slave Narrative: A true story told by an enslaved or formerly enslaved person about slavery.

  • Slave: A person held as property by another, and generally required to work without wages.

  • Slavery: The practice of holding persons as slaves.

  • Bondage: The condition of being held by another, as in slavery.

  • Oppression: The unjust of cruel exercise of authority.

  • Emancipation: The act of being freed, of being given one’s liberty.

  • Spiritual: A song, often of African American origin, that expresses religious experiences.

  • Underground Railroad: A secret, loosely organized group of persons opposed to slavery who aided slaves to escape.

Assessment Materials


This is the same worksheet that is presented as Procedure #3 and under LESSON MATERIALS as #3.  There are 23 blank spaces to be filled in. Count off 4 points for each incorrect.

African American spirituals, especially those created in the days of slavery, often used metaphors to hide the meaning of the songs. Imagine the reaction of a master upon hearing a group of bonded persons singing “I’m going to run away”. To prevent this from happening, many spirituals were “coded”. TASK: After hearing the songs Steal Away to Jesus (in the Midnight Hour), Wade in the Water, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Daniel, and then referring to the lyrics sheet of the songs, complete the section below. In some cases you have been given the metaphor. You should write what you think it means. In other cases you have been given a meaning. In those cases write a short section of the lyrics that would match the given meaning. If the song is NOT given on the sheet, you also must tell which song the metaphor is from.

Supports for Struggling Learners

This lesson requires a good deal of complex and abstract thought. The best strategy for struggling learners would be to place then in a group and allow for a sharing of answers.

ALTERNATIVELY, you may provide them with the STUGGLING LEARNERS WORKSHEET. It is identical to WORKSHEET- LESSON 5 except that it is set up in a multiple choice mode. The answer sheet is provided on the same file.

Enrichment Activities



Many songs contain coded references that are not grasped by those who do not know the subculture of the group which created the song, or the slang of the writer. Think of things as simple as Five 0 meaning the police (a term based on the 1970’s cop show “Hawaii Five 0”).


Choose a tune. 

It can be a tune you create, one from a favorite song of yours, or any other tune. 

Give the name of the tune. 

Then write a set of lyrics in which you express ideas about people struggling for freedom, or in which you advise people how to get their freedom (think of “Wade in the Water” as advising people to stick to the creeks to escape the tracing hounds of slave catchers.) 

Write and translate at least ten lines. 

  • Write a line of coded lyrics. 
  • Directly beneath, write the plain, uncoded meaning. 

A two line example has been provided. 

The grading rubric has also been provided. 


Jingle Bells “Stepping out, stepping out, going for a jog. Watching out, all the way, for that Five 0 dog” 


WHICH MEANS I am going to escape, and I must be sure to keep an eye out for the slave holder’s tracking hound. 


Tune given

0 -1 times 10 

Correct number of lines written

0 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 

Proper translation of hidden meaning given

0 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 

Hidden meaning properly expresses ideas of the struggle for freedom

0 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 times 2 

Student product shows sufficient complexity and understanding.

0 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 times 2 

Total points______ times 2 = Final Grade of ________

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Last updated: July 22, 2019