Lesson Plan

The Life of Captain Wilbur Kelly

Lesson Plan Image
Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
30 Minutes
State Standards:
HP 1; HP 1 (3-4)-1; HP 2; HP 2-2; HP 2 (3-4)-3; HP 3; HP 3-1;
Additional Standards:
D2.Eco.3.3-5; D2.Eco.4.3-5; E 1 (3-4) –1; E 2 (K-2) – 2; D2.Geo.1.3-5; D2.Geo.2.3-5; D2.Geo.8.3-5; D2.His.1.3-5; D2.His.16.3-5
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. 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. 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

How did Captain Wilbur Kelly use natural resources within the Blackstone River Valley?


1) Students will identify who Captain Wilbur Kelly was and the role rivers had on mill life and transportation in the Blackstone River Valley.

2) Students will analyze a primary source about the canal and Blackstone River Valley.

3) Students will create and design their own six word story on a 5x7 index card, summarizing the primary source.


About these Materials

Rhode Island is a state with an extensive history, as it is part of the original thirteen colonies owned by England and played a crucial role in the development of America as a nation. Rhode Island was extremely influential in the United States Industrial Revolution; English immigrant Samuel Slater built a mill that made cotton thread along the Blackstone River Valley area of Rhode Island. With the funding from Moses Brown, this idea began a shift from agriculture to industry throughout parts of New England. Numerous other investors developed mill complexes that dotted Rhode Island’s rivers and utilized water power in new ways. Canals created a new mode of transportation while dams allowed human control of the rivers. This created major changes in how people moved over land and also how people were able to obtain goods and other basic needs. One of those investors was Captain Wilbur Kelly, whose influence in and around the area of Ashton will be the focus of this unit.  

The Rhode Island Historical Society, in partnership with Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, developed academic lessons that can be used on-site at the grounds of the Kelly House and the Ashton Mill complex as well as in the classroom if unavailable to go to the site itself. The project consisted of conducting archival research, reading secondary sources, and local educators creating interactive lessons for students which focus on historical context, ELA strategies, and STEM education. This unit provides a well-rounded learning experience for students at the upper elementary level. It intends to showcase a narrative of Rhode Islanders who used the Blackstone River Valley for commercial purposes. Educators could teach this unit during an exploration of famous Rhode Islanders, the Industrial Revolution, or the study of environment and geography in Rhode Island. 

View this set of videos for an overview of the history of the Wilbur Kelly and Ashton Mills. 

See this timeline of the history of the property from before European contact to the present. 

See this video by the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park about canal construction. 

How to Use These Materials 

The lessons do not need to be completed as a whole or in any particular order. A teacher may decide to teach the lesson on “The Rhode Island System” in the classroom before a class visit to the Kelly House, visit the Kelly House to walk the property and see what they have learned, run the “Testing the Water Quality of the Blackstone River” lesson while at the property, and follow up in the classroom with the “Project Zap” lesson. A teacher may decide to take pieces of one lesson and combine it with another. The lessons are for teachers to use as is fitting for their curriculum. There are endless possibilities. The lessons below give tips for running the lesson at the Kelly House Museum and property and in the classroom. Some of the lessons have additional suggested extension activities to deepen the lesson futher. 


If on-site, students will explore the Kelly House Museum and read the various placards about his life and accomplishments. If in the classroom, students can read about Captain Wilbur Kelly from the NPS website: https://www.nps.gov/blrv/learn/historyculture/wilberkelly.htm 

Students will also need a physical copy of the “Blackstone Valley Transportation Union Line” article from the Providence Journal (1831) 

A 5x7 index card and colored pencils 

Clip board 

An example of how to create a six word story can be found here. https://educators.mysticseaport.org/videos/sm_six_word_memoir/ 


This document provides information about the canal

Download Ad from newspaper

Lesson Hook/Preview

This lesson will have students practice using primary and secondary sources in order to learn about the past. Teachers will need to do some scaffolding when it comes to the reading material because the language might be difficult to understand for upper elementary students. 


1) Give students some background knowledge on Wilbur Kelly. The students can either read this information on their own or the teacher can read the information out loud to their students. 

2) Provide the students with a primary source article from The Providence Journal that focuses on canal use near the Kelly House. If on site, the teacher and students can stand near the canal site and read the newspaper clipping together. If the teacher is in the classroom, there should be a photo projected showing the canal: https://www.nps.gov/blrv/faqs.htm  

In either case, each student should have a hard copy of the clipping so they can practice annotating. 

3) After reading the newspaper article, students should summarize what they read in six words -- no more, no less. Then, students will write their “six word story” on the 5x7 index card and draw an image to go along with their sentence. For oral directions, here is a short video on how to make a six word story: https://educators.mysticseaport.org/videos/sm_six_word_memoir/ The teacher can always create their own six word story prior to the lesson as an example for their students. 


Textile company: a business that turns yarn into fabric, usually for clothes 

Canal: a human-made, long ditch that becomes a waterway for boats to use 

Transportation: to bring goods or people from one place to another 

Raw materials: natural items (such as sheep wool) that get turned into something else (such as yarn) 

Assessment Materials

Questions to Ponder:

How does a canal help boats move up and down a river?

How are people and goods transported today?

What kinds of jobs did Captain Wilbur Kelly have?

A six word story is a great content literacy strategy to gauge student comprehension. Encourage the students to make their stories as visually appealing as possible. Have students read out loud their stories to each other. The museum can also create a bulletin board to post the best six word stories so students can showcase their work to the public. 

Enrichment Activities

Have students look at the article from the June 16, 1830 Massachusetts Spy. The article contains two tables, one from April and one from May of 1830, showing the amount of goods being traded up the canal from Providence. Explain how much a ton is. Have students identify Kelly’s Mill on the tables. Have students answer how many tons of goods were brought to Kelly’s Mill each month. Have students list five items that were included in the trade.

Contact Information

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Last updated: January 4, 2024