Lesson plan

Understand African American Spirituals

Spirituals have a long history in the United States, and often serve to strengthen and motivate people. Students will compare three types of spirituals from different time periods and share their understanding with their peers.
Grade Subject View aligned standards

Students will be able to compare three different styles of African American spirituals.

(5 minutes)
  • Play aloud a clip or two of different examples of African American spirituals. See the Suggested resources section, or refer to The History of African American Spirituals worksheet for song title ideas.
  • Ask students if the songs are familiar, if they understand who is singing, or if they wonder anything about the songs. Record their ideas on the board.
  • Explain that African American spirituals are religious songs that relate to the experience of enslaved African Americans in the United States.
(10 minutes)
  • Tell students that African American spirituals have a long history in the United States. While African Americans have sung the spirituals since slavery in the American South, the styles and words in the spirituals have changed over the years
  • Create a three-column T-chart and list the three time periods: Spirituals During Enslavement, Spirituals During Emancipation, Spirituals During the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Review that enslavement refers to when Africans were forced to work as enslaved people and emancipation is when the 13th Amendment passed and slavery was illegal. Remind students that the civil right movement is when African Americans and their supporters strived to eliminate segregation and gain equal rights beginning in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Explain that while there is likely to be some overlap in the styles, these are general time periods.
  • Display and distribute The History of African American Spirituals worksheet. Read through the beginning text with the class, asking for volunteers to read each paragraph.
  • Review confusing or difficult vocabulary with students as volunteers read the text. Highlight each heading to emphasize the separation of ideas in the text.
(15 minutes)
  • Separate the class into three groups.
  • Assign each group a time period (e.g., Spirituals During Enslavement, Spirituals During Emancipation, Spirituals During the Civil Rights Movement.)
    • Have groups read through the whole worksheet as a group.
    • Tell them to reread their assigned section and highlight key details about spirituals during that time period.
    • Ask them to write some details in their section of the worksheet.
    • Tell each group that they will present key ideas to the class, so they should each be able to contribute some information during the presentation.
(20 minutes)
  • Have groups present the key ideas and details from their assigned time period. As groups present, take notes on the three-columned T-chart on the board.
  • Tell students to take notes on their worksheet, making sure to write the notes in the correct time period. Reiterate key ideas about spirituals in each time period after each group presentation.
  • Have students independently complete the Venn diagram after the presentations.
  • Review the answers to the Venn diagram and correct misconceptions or discuss questions that arise.


  • Engage students in a small, teacher-led group as they study their chosen type of spiritual. Assist students as they read through the text and ask probing questions as they choose key details.
  • Discuss with them beforehand what they will share during their presentations so they get practice sharing their thoughts.
  • Write questions you say aloud on the board so students can reread them.


  • Give students an opportunity to explore the sounds of African American spirituals. Have them use the Related Resources or search online for audio. They might notice that remade audio recordings may have different styles depending on the time period in which they were recorded.
  • Challenge students to think about how the civil rights period may have changed if African Americans had not used spirituals. This will be an opinion exercise where they will have to make inferences and use historical evidence to support their opinions.
  • Allow students to listen with headphones to audio recordings of spirituals online.
  • Have students play a clip of a spiritual during their group presentations.
(12 minutes)
  • Have students read and complete the worksheet Underground Railroad: Songs of Freedom.
  • Ask students to identify the time period of the spirituals listed on the worksheet (during slavery). Ask them to give evidence for their answer. (E.g., year of the songs, Harriet Tubman reference, context of the text, etc.)
  • Once students have determined the songs fit during the slavery time period, see if students can add more details to that section of the three-column T-chart.
(8 minutes)
  • Ask students why spirituals are considered a part of African American culture. Have them turn and talk to their elbow partner.
  • Ask some of the following follow-up questions:
    • How do you define culture? (E.g., a pattern of behavior shared by a society, or group of people. Food, music, clothes, and crafts are some examples of things that make up a group of people's culture.)
    • What was the purpose of the spirituals?
    • Why would African Americans continue to sing the same tunes over the years, but change the lyrics?
    • What impact did spirituals have on the African American community?
  • Allow students to use their text or other online sources to answer some of these questions. Model referring to a source as you rephrase some of the student statements.

Add to collection

Create new collection

Create new collection

New Collection


New Collection>

0 items