MCPS - Global Access

Geography - Economics Lessons
Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

MCPS Status of Book as of 4/4/96:
Approved as Library Book for Grades K-5

Title: Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson with illustrations by James Ransome (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, 1993)

Lesson Developed by Patricia King Robeson

Literature Annotation: This story is based on a true, little-known chapter in African American history. As a seamstress in the Big House, Clara knows she's better off than the slaves who work the fields. But slavery has separated Clara from her mother, and she can never be happy without her. Clara dreams that they will be reunited one day and run away together - north to freedom. Then Clara hears two slaves talking about how they could find the Underground Railroad if only they had a map. In a flash of inspiration, she sees how to use the cloth in her scrap bag to sew a map of the land - a freedom quilt - that no master will ever suspect is a map to freedom.

Grade Level: 5

Duration: 3 to 4 class periods; this lesson could be used to introduce other lessons or discussions on migration and the different reasons people have for moving.

Economic Concepts: Scarcity; Production; Opportunity Cost; Natural, Capital and Human Resources

Geography Themes: Location, Place, Relationships: Human and Environment, Movement

MSPAP Outcomes and Indicators:

Economic Outcome: Students will demonstrate an understanding of the historical development and current status of economic principles, institutions, and processes needed to be effective citizens, consumers, and workers in American society.


Geography Outcome: Students will develop an understanding of geographic concepts and processes as needed to examine the role of culture, technology, and the environment in the location and distribution of human activities.


Objectives: Students will be able to:

Vocabulary: Underground Railroad, overseer, "patroller", plantation, station


Teacher Background: Knowledge of the Underground Railroad and its routes.

Lesson Development:


  1. Explain to the students that this story took place during the last years when slavery existed in our country. Thousands of slaves tried to escape to freedom in the North and were often helped along a secret route called the Underground Railroad. Using a map of the United States, ask the students if they can name any of the slave or free states. Show students the U.S. Free and Slave States Map and identify the location of the slave and free states. Have a student locate Canada on the map.

  2. Show students the transparency of the Reward poster and ask the following questions:

  3. Say: Today we will read a story about a young girl named Clara who, with the help of other slaves, plans an escape route to run away to Canada.
  4. Read the story, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, as students listen.

Webbing Activity:

Discuss the story by making a web on the board which identifies the physical features of land described in the story. Ask the students to explain how these physical features helped Clara make her quilt.

Story Discussion:

Ask the following questions:

  1. Show students the pages in the book where Clara is on the hill overlooking Home Plantation. Ask them to describe the ways the environment of Home Plantation has been changed to meet people's needs and wants. List their responses on the chalkboard. (Cleared land to make fields for crops, built roads, built houses, put up fences, raised animals)

  2. Say: Think about the story and what you have learned about where it takes place. Using the maps of Free and Slave States and of Agricultural Production: 1860 , where do you think the story took place and why do you think it took place in that state? (Any slave state where cotton was grown and which is near the Ohio River is acceptable.)

  3. Ask students to identify the human, capital and natural resources of Home Plantation. List their responses on the board in the appropriate category - human, capital, natural. (Human resources - slaves driving wagons, working in the fields, weeding and picking cotton, carrying barrels, sewing, cooking. Capital resources - wagon, candlestick, sewing basket, scissors, needles, houses, cooking utensils, barn, slave quarters, fence. Natural resources - horses, cotton, trees, soil, grass, cattle, water, chickens, sunflowers)

  4. Read the page in the book opposite the picture which shows Clara on the hill overlooking Home Plantation, and ask students to make a list of physical and human-made features that Clara decided to use in her quilt map. (Slave cabins, fields, cow pond, path, Big House, creeks, rivers, roads, Big Plantation, hidden boat, Ohio River, North Star, old tree struck by lightning, winding road near the creek and hunting paths through the swamp)

  5. Say: Opportunity cost is the single most valuable opportunity given up when a choice is made. What was Clara's opportunity cost when she chose to run away? Why did she think her choice was better than what she gave up? (Clara gave up a job in the Big House and her friendship with Aunt Rachel to escape to unknown land where she hoped to be free and with her mother.)

  6. Ask: How do you think the plantation owners felt about runaway slaves? Why? (Slave owners would be very angry because they needed the slaves to do the work on the plantation, and they had paid money for them. The slave masters would have to buy other slaves, spending more money to replace the runaway slaves.)

  7. Ask the students what they think were the effects of having slaves on the standard of living of the plantation owners and their families. (The more slaves a plantation owner had, generally the higher his standard of living because slaves increased his production of goods and services. He used or sold these goods and services to get money to purchase other goods and services that the family needed and wanted.)

Conclusion/Closure :

Explain to the students that they are going to make a "quilt map". Distribute copies of the Underground Railroad worksheet to the students. Explain that there were many routes slaves could follow, depending on where they started. Have students read the worksheet and discuss responses. Instruct students to sketch a quilt in the squares on the worksheet to show the route from Charleston, South Carolina to New Haven, Connecticut.

Thoughtful Application of Knowledge :

Say: Once Clara and Jack crossed the Ohio River, their journey was not over, but this is as much information as we have from the story. Many runaways did not feel safe until they had reached Canada. We are going to finish the story of Clara's and Jack's journey to freedom in Canada.

  1. Put students in groups of no more than six.

  2. Distribute one copy of the map of Underground Railroad Routes to each group.

  3. Have students study the map and a U.S. map and name the three stations where Clara and Jack could have crossed the Ohio River.

  4. Instruct the students to select one of the stations and look at the route that would take runaways north to Canada, thinking about physical and human made features that could be seen along the route. Allow students to use books, atlases, encyclopedias, etc. to research information.

  5. Have each group make a list of these features, decide which ones to use on their quilt, and who should draw which features. (Have them choose enough features that each student will have one or two to draw and color.)

  6. Before making the quilt, students should sketch their quilt design on 3" x 3" post-it notes. (Be sure to explain what quilt patterns are to students.) Students need to realize that the map is hidden within the quilt.

  7. Give each student one or two "quilt squares" (8" x 8") on which to draw and color the assigned features.

  8. When all pictures are finished have students in each group glue the squares on bulletin board paper. Have each group share their quilt with the other groups.

  9. Instruct students to write a paragraph to finish the story using the quilt they made. The paragraph should tell how Clara and Jack satisfied their needs along the way, what they would want and need in Canada and how they might meet their needs and wants once they settled in Canada.

Return to the Economics and Geography Lessons introduction page .

Return to the Social Studies Overview .

Last updated on December 17, 1996
Maintained by John L. Day