Visualizing: Follow the Drinking Gourd

Grade Levels: K - 3


This lesson is designed to establish the skill of visualizing for primary students, using the story Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter. In this lesson, students use clues from the text to create their own images and imagine how characters are thinking and feeling.

Students should already have some familiarity with the concept of visualizing. (See the article Visualizing, which introduces the strategy.) For students to be able to use visualization as a comprehension strategy, they need to imagine what is described in the text. As students advance in their visualizing skills, they should be able to visualize not only concrete examples, but also a character's thoughts and actions.

If this is going to be students' first experience discussing slavery and the Underground Railroad, take time to give students some context for the story before beginning the lesson.


  • Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter.

  • A chalkboard, white board, or chart paper to record information from the text.

  • Blank paper, pencils, and crayons or markers.


  1. Hook/Engagement

    Invite students to gather together to listen to a story. Explain that you are going to read a story called Follow the Drinking Gourd. Give students a context for the story, reminding them of the Underground Railroad, and the flight of slaves from plantation workers to freedom, and explain that sometimes songs were used to give slaves information that would lead them to safety.

    Ask students to close their eyes and visualize a starry sky at night. One of the stars is the North Star. If you're lost at night and want to head north, you can head in the direction of Polaris, the North Star, which appears over the North Pole. Describe the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Ask students to make a drawing of the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper while you describe them.

    Note: The two stars at the end of the bowl of the Big Dipper point to Polaris, the North Star, which is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper.

    If you need more background information, you can start with the book section "A Note About the Story."

  2. Vocabulary

    • Drinking gourd—the hallowed out shell of a vegetable, like a squash

    • Big Dipper, Little Dipper—constellations of stars

    • Drinking Gourd—another name for the big dipper (ask students why the slaves called the Big Dipper the Drinking Gourd)

    • Polaris—the North Star

    • Underground Railroad—a route that escaping slaves followed from the south to the north

  3. Measurable Objectives

    Explain to students that there are several characters in the story, including Peg Leg Joe, Molly, James, Hattie, George, and Isaiah. As they listen to the story, students will visualize the scenes and imagine themselves in Molly's place. They will think about how she is feeling throughout the story.

  4. Focused Instruction

    Read the book to the class, pausing to ask students to think about how Molly is feeling at any given point. Share your own visualizations of the text. One good pausing point is on the page that begins "When daylight came, they hid in the trees," and ends with the sentence, "They hid all day in the woods." Tell students how you would describe the illustrations, and describe certain parts of the illustration such as the dogs' teeth or the family huddled together. Then have students visualize themselves in Molly's place, contemplating how Molly is feeling. Model this, using the illustrations and text to articulate your feelings.

  5. Guided Practice

    Pair students and have them tell one another how they would feel and what they would do in Molly's place. Discuss student responses, guiding them to use clues in the text and illustrations. Encourage students to use their imagination to describe how they would feel, and invite many students to participate in the discussion. Focus on the visualizations and remind students that there is no one correct answer to these questions.

    Continue reading and pausing to allow students to reflect on Molly's feelings until the book is completed.

  6. Independent Practice

    Once you have read the story and discussed the characters' feelings, focus on the last scene of the book, which begins with the words, "At last they came to the shores of Lake Erie." You could adapt the lesson to fit any of the scenes from the book.

    Organize students into groups of two or three. Give each group paper and pencils or crayons to record their ideas. Have students use words or draw pictures, or both, to represent their feelings, depending on their fluency as writers.

    Say, "I'm going to reread the ending of the book. I want you to imagine that you are one of the people in Molly's family. As you listen to the author's words, imagine how you would feel. Use your paper to write down your ideas and feelings."

    Reread the last few pages of the book, beginning with, "At last they came to the shores of Lake Erie." Encourage students to write and discuss their ideas with the other students in their group. One way to promote discussion is to use a think, pair, share strategy, allowing students to first think through the question independently, then share with a partner, and then, finally, share with the whole class.

    As students share their ideas, extend the discussion, asking how students went about imagining themselves in the characters' shoes. Did they picture themselves in the story? Was there a part of the story that was particularly vivid? If so, what made it that way? Was it easier to imagine themselves in the roles of the children or the adults? As the conversation continues, reinforce ideas that refer to visualization as a technique for understanding the content.

  7. Assessment

    One way to assess student progress in visualization is to reflect on the changes in your students' ability to empathize with the characters as the discussion progressed. Were they able to actually picture the story? Were they able to recall at least one scene in detail? To further assess students' visualization skills, choose a passage from a different source that is particularly descriptive. One such passage can be found in Faith Ringgold's Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky:

    "Niagara Falls looked like a giant tea party with a billion cups of steaming hot tea being poured to a resounding applause. The steam from the falls formed a soft blanket that lifted me up, up, up above the falls and across the bridge to Canada. I could fly! I was free!"

    Ask students to listen to the passage and then write about or draw the scene. It is sometimes helpful for students to be told in advance to try to create a picture of the scene in the text as it is read, and for them to close their eyes as they listen. Then, have students write about or draw how they would feel if they were a character in the story.

Reflection and Planning

To continue working on visualizing, you may use the additional lesson on this topic. It will explore the topic in a bit more depth, expanding students' understanding of the concept.

For students who are struggling with this concept, have them visualize texts that are clear and very descriptive until they are competent at visualizing concrete scenes. Then have them progress to more abstract visualizations, by imagining themselves as characters in the text.

You may also extend the lesson by listening to a recording of the song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" or by working with the music teacher to incorporate the song into the music curriculum. There are also other stories such as Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold, which also explores the topic of the Underground Railroad and gives students vivid images with its text and illustrations.

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