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Featured Lesson Plan: Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt
Lesson Plans to Inspire Young Minds


These lesson plans should be integrated with a class reading of the picture book Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. The lesson plans are broadly appropriate for all primary grade levels; you may wish to tailor the plans to your specific class group.

The first plan includes a list of concepts you may wish to discuss with students before or after reading the book. This is followed simply by a list of terms taken from the text that you may wish to issue for your weekly vocabulary and/or spelling test, dependent upon the grade level of your students. Last is a lesson plan for a class activity that will encourage students to think more deeply about their knowledge of historical slavery in America and gain an empathetic understanding of some commonplace situations of the 19th century American South.

Concepts presented in Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

1. AAVE – Much of Sweet Clara is written in the language many linguists define as African American Vernacular English or AAVE. AAVE is also popularly known as Ebonics. Many linguists agree that AAVE is a distinct language variety with specific rules regarding grammar and word pronunciation. Because all of your students are either speakers of AAVE or come in contact with speakers of AAVE, it is important to affirm the idea that AAVE is not a sub-standard variation of English. Rather, AAVE is a linguistic variation that developed in specific socio-cultural conditions and is not related to one’s academic abilities. Many children that learn AAVE in their home learn Standard English as a second language once they begin school. For further reading before lecturing on this concept, you may wish to read the following web page that includes a description of the opposing opinions regarding AAVE:

2. Colloquialism – Much different than a language variety, a colloquialism is a word that may have different meanings in different regions or a word phrase that is mutually understood by members of a specific group or geographic region. Some examples of colloquialism used in Sweet Clara are “squirrel away” and “missus.”

3. Terms of the South and Slavery used in Sweet Clara:

A. Big house – the main house on a plantation, generally inhabited by the plantation owner and his/her family or relatives of the plantation owner.

B. Quarters – group of small structures inhabited by slaves.

C. Overseer – Man employed by the plantation owner to act as a manager of the slave population of the plantation. In many cases, overseers were given permission, or gave themselves permission, to use violence as a means for controlling slaves; it was very common for overseers to instill extreme fear in slaves through the use of physical, psychological, and emotional violence.

D. Master – a slaveholder.

E. Missus – slaveholder, wife of the slaveholder, or daughter of the slaveholder.

F. Field hand – slave that worked in the fields.

G. Pateroller – person that searched for, captured, and returned runaway slaves.

H. Underground Railroad – A network of slaves, escaped slaves, free blacks, and white abolitionists that worked together to organize escape plans and escape assistance for slaves in the South. For more information, visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center online at:

Vocabulary/Spelling list derived from Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

1. Contrary

2. Squirrel away

3. Calico

4. Plantation

5. Freedom

6. Remembered

7. Neighboring

8. Lightning

9. Cheery

10. Stitches

11. Aine

Concepts & Imaginings: A Class Discussion/Activity Referencing Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt

Concepts relating to the story are presented below. Each concept is paired with an imagination activity for students. You may choose to use all, some, or one of the pairings depending on the class time available to you. Read the concept aloud to students and then offer a brief period for questions; next, read the imagining exercise; last, allow students to share imaginings and realizations with the class.

1a. Concept: Clara is separated from her mother before her twelfth birthday. During the times of slavery, it was quite common for the children of slaves to be taken away from their parents. Many slave children were taken away while still an infant. (This practice of separation was used to alienate slaves, deprive them of an emotional support system, and make them feel less human.)

1b. Imagine: that when you get home from school one day, someone takes you away to a place far away from your family and tells you that you must stay at the faraway place forever. Imagine what it might feel like thinking that you will never see your family again. [Pause while students imagine. The thoughts you have may be very similar to the thoughts of Clara and many slave children of the past.]

2a. Concept: When Clara arrives at Home Plantation she is forced to work in the fields. Most slave children were forced to work, some even years before their twelfth birthday. Oftentimes, slaves were required to work from sunrise to sunset— sometimes even earlier and later. Most slaves were not allowed to read or write. At some points in history, it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write and illegal for slaves to teach themselves.

2b. Imagine: that you are not allowed to come to school. Imagine that, instead, you are required to work outdoors, in a field, picking cotton or planting seeds. Imagine that you are in the heat all day in the summer and in the cold all day in the winter. Imagine that you are not allowed to learn to spell your own name. Pause while students imagine. How would this feel knowing that other kids that only look different than you are allowed to go to school and never have to work?

3a. Concept: Aunt Rachel didn’t seem to care about Clara’s talent for making pretty patterns out of the scraps of cloth. This is because Aunt Rachel knew that the only way for Clara to get to work in the big house was to impress the missus by giving the missus only what she wanted—tiny & neatly sewn stitches. Many slaves might have been talented artists, writers, or scientists, but they were not given or allowed the time to pursue their own dreams, talents, and interests. Clara was fortunate that she had the opportunity to secretly make her quilt.

3b. Imagine: Think of something that you enjoy doing and/or feel that you are good at doing. Imagine that you are sold to a missus and the missus forbids you to do any of the things that you would like to do. Instead, the missus demands that you only do work, and do the work exactly in the way she instructs. Pause while students imagine. How would you feel? Would you risk punishment to try to secretly do the things you enjoy?

4a. Concept: Aunt Rachel told Clara not to think about running away. Do you remember why?

4b. Imagine: Would you still think about running away? Why?

5a. Concept: Many slaves tried to run away but were caught. Some of the slaves that were able to successfully escape went to the North and told white people about the horrors of slavery in the South.

5b. Imagine: How might history be different if no slaves ran away because of the fear of being caught? Why was it important that some of the escaped slaves spoke to white people in the North rather than running away to a secret place?

6a. Concept: You have already thought about why it was important for Clara to continue to dream about seeing her momma again once she was taken to Home Plantation. Also remember, when Clara leaves to run away Aunt Rachel says that she herself is too old to go, but she won’t stop dreaming about leaving. Additionally, when Clara is following the freedom trail, she feels like she’s in a dream she already dreamed. It seems that dreams are an important aspect of life as a slave.

6b. Imagine: that you are a slave with seemingly no chance of escape. Would you be able to keep your dreams alive? How would you keep dreaming even when you are really sad? Why would it be important for you to have dreams?

7a. Concept: Clara chose to use a quilt to make a map to freedom. There are many reasons why Clara chose to make her map on a quilt. Can you name a few?

7b. Imagine: you are a slave and want to make a map to freedom. What might you use, besides a quilt, to make a map that you could share with others without getting caught?

8a. Concept: To cross the river during their escape, Clara, Jack, and Clara’s family used a boat hidden by people that belonged to the Underground Railroad. Many types of people belonged to the Underground Railroad: white people from the North, white people from the South, slaves that had already escaped to the North, and slaves that did not try to escape so that they could stay to help others escape. Because helping a slave escape was illegal, everyone involved with the Underground Railroad put himself or herself in great danger. Why did so many people help slaves escape even though it was dangerous?

8b. Imagine: you are a white person living in the South during the times of slavery. Imagine that your friends own plantations and many slaves but you think that slavery is wrong. Would you be a part of the Underground Railroad? What things might you be able to do to help slaves escape?


It may be important to close the class discussion by making a few comparisons about the South and the North to help students understand why there was such a sharp division within America regarding the issue of slavery. You may wish to use some of the following points at a comprehension level appropriate for your class group:

1. Differing economic systems – factories in the North, agriculture in the South – created different labor needs and social systems.

2. Many urban centers thrived in the North, keeping a large number of people living in close proximity to each other. Because of this, people got much information about politics and got the information quickly. In the South, people were spread apart over wide areas, which meant that they got less information and got it more slowly. In addition, slaves never directly received information about social issues or politics, or much of anything except information about slaves being punished for trying to escape.

3. Most immigration portals were in the North, providing a large labor pool. Many immigrants also came from countries that had abolished slavery long before the U.S.

4. Many wealthy Southerners tried to maintain an aristocratic social system, while many immigrants in the North pushed for a more egalitarian social structure.

Links to More Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt Lesson Plans

Using Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt in the Classroom from Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt author Deborah Hopkinson

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt Interdisciplinary Unit for grades two through eight, developed by Cynthia Weeden for Slavery in America.

Geography - Economics Lessons developed for Montgomery County, MD Public Schools by Patricia King Robeson.

Teacher Cyber Guide for third grade. Developed for the Schools of California Online Resources for Educators (SCORE) Project, by Jim Walters.

Escaping Slavery: Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt from Read, Write, Think.

Language Arts and Social Studies developed by Mary Beth Martin.

Behind the Scenes
About Illustrator James Ransome

The Children's Book Council named James E. Ransome as one of seventy-five authors and illustrators everyone should know. Currently a member of the Society of Illustrators, Ransome has received both the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and the IBBY Honor Award for his book, The Creation. He has also received a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for Illustration for Uncle Jed's Barbershop which was selected as an ALA Notable Book and is currently being shown as a feature on Reading Rainbow. How Many Stars in the Sky?and Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt were also Reading Rainbow selections. PBS's Storytime featured his book, The Old Dog. Ransome has exhibited works in group and solo shows throughout the country and received The Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance award for his book, The Wagon. In 1999 Let My People Go received the NAACP Image Award for Illustration and Satchel Paige was reviewed in Bank Street College of Education's "The Best Children's Books of the Year." He has completed a mural for the Children's Museum in Indianapolis and a historical painting commissioned by a jury for the Paterson, NJ Library. His work is part of both private and public children's book art collections. For the body of his work, James received the 2001 Rip Van Winkle Award from the School Library Media Specialists of Southeast New York.

In addition to his career as an illustrator, James Ransome also teaches at Pratt Institute and lectures at elementary schools, libraries and book conferences. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Lesa, children Jaime, Maya, Malcolm and Leila. Learn more about James Ransome at

About Lesson Plan Author Lisa Hylton

Lisa B. Hylton is a recent graduate of the University of South Florida. She received her B.A. in Anthropology. Her interests include historical archaeology of the Americas, American identity, the archaeology of difference, and, more broadly, the analysis of contemporary culture and its dynamic connection to the past.

Lis would like to thank the following people for their inspiration, generosity in sharing ideas, and thoughtful critiques: Toni O. Carrier, Dr. Julie Buckner-Armstrong, and Dr. Julia Penelope.
Copyright 2004 The University of South Florida and The Africana Heritage Project. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. For more information, contact the Africana Heritage Project via e-mail.