Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Recommended Grades: 3-5

Based on historical fact, Rosa and her mother, both slaves, sneak away at night to go to “pit school.”  This is where slaves learn to read and write.  An interesting piece of American history told in a beautifully illustrated story.  

Lesson Idea:  


Content Connections/Inquiry Study: Read aloud Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret.  Use this book if working on an inquiry unit on slavery or the Civil War. Students could use this as a resource to understand how schooling was not a norm for slaves.  Ask how slaves went about learning how to read when they weren’t allowed.  Pair this book with Words Set Me Free.

©2013 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.

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Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith, Jr.

Publisher:  Harper Collins

Date: December 26, 2012

Recommended Grades: 3-5

Who built the White House?  Slaves built the house for our country’s president.  A lovely piece of nonfiction detailing the “hands” that built the White House. 

Lesson Idea:  


American History:  Read aloud Brick by Brick and engage students in a discussion about the history of our country.  How were slaves involved in building one of our iconic residences?  Why weren’t machines used to build the White House as they would be today?  How were slaves an integral part of the building of our country?

Disclosure:  I received a copy of this book for review by the publisher.      

©2013 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.

Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown by Sally M. Walker

Recommended Grades: 4-6

Henry “Box” Brown was a slave in the 1800’s on a plantation near Richmond, Va.  Song was an important part of his life and he sang for all aspects of it.  When Henry’s wife and children were sold to another master, Henry’s song stopped.  And in the silence, he thought of an ingenious way to escape slavery and find freedom.   

Lesson Idea:


Mentor Texts: Read aloud Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown in conjunction with Henry’s Freedom Box when discussing the Underground Railroad or the Civil War.  Why did Henry’s plan work?  Did others try after him?  Why was music an important influence in the lives of slaves?  Discuss these questions and encourage students to research to see if answers to these questions can be found.

 Six Traits

Idea Development: I have read several picture books that have been written as the result of a true event (see Ducky or Henry’s Freedom Box).  I love how authors read about something that is factual and turn it into a story that is accessible to kids of all ages.  After reading aloud Freedom Song: The Story of Henry “Box” Brown (and other examples), ask students to brainstorm a list of historical events in their writer’s notebook.  When students are looking for a writing piece, ask them to look further into the background of a historical event of their choice.  You never know what they might find!

Note: The author’s note in the back provides detail as to how her version of Henry “Box” Brown’s life story came to fruition.  Additionally, an excerpt from an actual letter of the man who met Henry “Box” Brown on his arrival to Pennsylvania is also provided.

©2012 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.

January’s Sparrow by Patricia Palacco

January Theme:  Patricia Polacco picture books

Patricia Polacco is another author whose books became touchstone texts in my classroom.  Her ability to write stories that children can relate to makes it easy to see why her books became model texts.

Comprehension Strategy: Asking Questions

Polacco’s most recent contribution to the kidlit world, January’s Sparrow, is a touching and semi-true story of a family of runaway slaves. With the help of abolitionists, the Crosswhite’s leave Kentucky for Canada.  They make it to Michigan and decide to settle down there (just a couple of miles from where Patricia Polacco grew up), but they are always looking over their shoulders.  Will the slave catchers find them?  Will they make it to Canada?

A fantastic story with surprises along the way, I would recommend this book be read to upper elementary or middle school students in a Slavery or Underground Railroad unit.  It’s a lot longer than your typical picture book and it has some scenes that may not be appropriate for kids younger than 9 or so.

January’s Sparrow is a great model text to use to teach students how good readers ask questions to help them understand the text.  There are many occasions on which a child may have questions related to the reading.  For example, “Will the Crosswhite’s get caught?”

Lesson idea: A great resource to use when teaching students about the Underground Railroad, provide an opportunity for students to record general questions they have about the Underground Railroad and slavery before reading.  As you read, stop at various opportunities and allow students to record questions they have specific to the text.  Finally, after reading, allow students to record any questions they still have about the Crosswhites, slavery, and the Underground Railroad.  Then take time to determine if any of the questions can be answered.  Use a T-chart to record questions before, during, and after reading and their answers.  Remind students that not all answers may be found in the text, and that activation of background knowledge, additional research, or discussion may need to occur to find the answers.

If you are teaching a unit on the Underground Railroad or slavery, you may want to check out this lesson I posted on Henry’s Freedom Box.  I think both books would be an excellent addition to your unit.

What touchstone texts or touchstone authors do you use in your classroom?

**Note** I provide these lesson ideas under the assumption that you are familiar with teaching comprehension strategies.  If you are not, and would like more information about teaching students to Ask Questions or any other comprehension strategy, please feel free to contact me at Dlittle[at]linkstoliteracy[dot]com.  I am happy to provide more specific lessons if necessary.**

©2010 by Dawn Little for Picture This! Teaching with Picture Books. All Amazon links are affiliate links and may result in my receiving a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you.