Hidden Messages in Spirituals

Intermediate (grades 6 - 8)

1- 2 class periods

Program Segments

Freedom's Land

NYS Core Curriculum - Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, 6 - 12

    •    Craft and Structure (meaning of words)

    •    Test Types and Purposes (organize ideas, develop topic with facts)
    •    Production and Distribution of Writing (develop, organize appropriate to task)
    •    Research to Build and Present Knowledge (short research project, using term effectively)

NCSS Themes

       I.     Culture and Cultural Diversity
       II.    Time, Continuity and Change
       III.   People, Places, and Environments
       IV.   Individual Development and Identity
       V.    Individuals, Groups and Institutions
       VIII. Science, Technology, and Society


Students will be able to:

    •    understand the concept and historical context of spirituals
    •    read and listen to spirituals
    •    discover the meaning of the secret messages found in the lyrics of spirituals
    •    compose a personal spiritual that includes a line from a known spiritual

Focus Questions

    •    How did spirituals help to preserve African culture during slavery?
    •    What are some of the hidden messages in spirituals?
    •    How can lyrics of spirituals reflect personal meanings?

Key Concepts

Metaphor, Spirituals, Poetry, Lyrics, Interpretation, Self-Reflection

Instructional Resources

    •     Underground Railroad: The William Still Story DVD
    •     Computer, mp3 player or CD to play the song "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"
    •      Icon Coded Lyrics Worksheet (213.6 KB)  
    •      Icon Coded Lyrics Worksheet-Teacher Notes (215.7 KB)
    •      Icon Classroom_Student Spiritual Lyrics.pdf (214.2 KB) (teacher should pre-cut and put in a box for students to draw from)
    •    "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" Song video (optional)


1. Watch the Underground Railroad: The William Still Story segments on spirituals.
2. Explain how spirituals are different from hymns and psalms because they were a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave. Be sure to    discuss the significant dual meaning found in the lyrics and their purpose for fugitive slaves (codes, faith).  
3. Play the song using an Internet site, mp3 file, or CD, (stopping periodically to explain parts of the song).
4. Have students fill out the Coded Lyrics Worksheet while discussing the meaning as a class.
5. Play the song again, uninterrupted.
6. Ask each student to choose a unique line from a box of pre-cut Student Spiritual Lyrics.
7. Allow the students at least twenty minutes to compose their own spirituals offering the following instructions before students begin to write:
    •   Spirituals should reflect the life of a slave and/or impending travel on the Underground Railroad
    •   The student's selected spiritual lyric must be included at least once in their songs
    •   Songs should be creative and engaging
    •   Students should use metaphors and can include their own "code" with a key for the teacher
    •   Any historical facts need to be accurate
8. Must meet length requirement (determined ahead of time by teacher)
9. When the students are done with their poems/songs ask for a few to read or sing to the class.

Assessment Tasks

The Students will identify the hidden meanings in spirituals based on class discussion and Coded Lyrics Worksheets. The students will also compose their own spiritual. 

Icon Download Hidden Messages in Spirituals Lesson Plan PDF (608.2 KB)


Program Segment for Lesson Plan

Click on the play button below to play the video. 

Program segment for PBS Learning Media.
Well-known Negro Spirituals of the mid-1800s are much more complex than they first appear.

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(Courtesy University of Virginia)
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(Courtesy Library of Congress)
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