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Mr. Snyder  --  Reading Strategies  --  Milford High School 


by: Gary Paulsen


Imagine that you are 12 years old and live on a large beautiful plantation.  However, you can't enjoy the plantation, because you are a slave. You have been a slave since you were born.  A young girl who lived this existence is Sarny. Sarny is a character from the novel Nightjohn. She is a slave who lives on the Waller plantation. She is not allowed to learn to read or write. Instead, she spends her days working. However, one day a man is brought to the plantation; his name is Nightjohn. When Sarny first sees him  he is brought in with a rope around his neck, and his body is covered with scars from many beatings. She is drawn to Nightjohn when she learns that he escaped North to freedom, only to voluntarily return to the South. Nightjohn has a self-imposed mission--to teach slaves how to read and write. He believes knowledge is the key to helping slaves break out of bondage. Sarny is willing to take the risk, even knowing that the penalty for reading is very dangerous. 


Each of you will be required to complete the above tasks using your own words.  The links in the resource areas will take you to web sites that will provide you with information to complete your tasks. If you need additional help you may use resources that are available in the school library or use to search.  Now that you are knowledgeable about slavery in America, you  may select what assignment you'd like to complete for your evaluation:  Assignment List.        


You will be evaluated on the quality of your work. Take your time and answer your questions.  Remember to use a RARE Response to answer each question.  Also, don't forget to write in your own words; do not copy your answers directly from the book or website--paraphrase.  If you need help ask the teacher or a fellow classmate.  For every statement made you should provide a reference that supports that position such as the web page or book that you got the information from.


Your task is to learn as much as you can about this "peculiar institution" called slavery. You have three areas to explore: slavery, the Underground Railroad, and music. Follow the directions carefully. 

Slavery - Find out how long slavery lasted; where the slaves came from, and what their lifestyles were.  

1. Where were the slaves originally from (Africa is too vague), and how did they get here?

2.  Why was there slavery in the United States?  

3. What was life like for most slave families?

4. Why was cotton so important? 

5.  How long did slavery last? 

6. What is the Emancipation Proclamation? Did it do what it was designed to do? Why?

7. What brought slavery to an end in the United States?

Resources: Follow these links to get help answering the questions above. 

African Americans in Slavery  

The African American Journey  

Emancipation Proclamation  

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The Underground Railroad - You have probably heard many stories of the Underground Railroad. Use the first link so that you can take a trip on it.  After visiting the Underground Railroad use the other links to answer the questions below. 

Give a brief description of your experience on the Underground Railroad.  Try to help someone who has never heard of it to understand what it is. 

1. What was the Underground Railroad?

2. Who was Harriet Tubman? Why is she important? 

3. About how many slaves did Harriet lead to freedom?

4. Why did so many slaves want to go to Canada and not to the north where there was no slavery?

5. What challenges did the freed slaves face in Canada?

6. A slave from Louisiana using the Underground Railroad to escape would travel through which states?


Underground Railroad Trip 

Harriet Tubman 

Underground Railroad 

Underground Railroad Routes

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Music - Slaves were forbidden to read and write, they had to communicate their feelings in ways that would not be obvious to their masters. One way was through song. Use the links below to read the lyrics to some of the slave spirituals and listen to some of the songs.    

1. What theme did many of the songs have in common? 

2. What purpose did some of the slave songs serve?

3. Read the lyrics to Follow the Drinking Gourd and Go Down Moses.  What is the significance of the words in these songs? 


Follow the Drinking Gourd 

Follow the Drinking Gourd 

Go Down Moses 

Jubilee Songs 

Songs of the Underground Railroad 


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You have followed in the footsteps of a slave. By now  you should be able to detail the life, culture, and struggles of an African slave in America. Hopefully this information has given you a better understanding of a slave's ability to survive in a world in which he had no control over his very being.  It should also give you a better foundation for understanding Nightjohn.