Question: How do you know the Abolitionists were brave?


Hiding inside the iconic children’s story Swimmy by Leo Lionni, is the timeless theme of bravery and a great opportunity to teach students of all ages about the historical importance of  Abolitionist Movement.

Swimmy is a little black fish, born a different color than the rest of his school of small red fish. One day Swimmy’s school is eaten by a large tuna fish. Scared and sad, Swimmy travels alone and sees many beautiful things, meeting all kinds of sea creatures, until he finds a school of red fish like his own. The red fish are too afraid of being eaten to go exploring with Swimmy, until Swimmy suggests that they all swim close together to look like one big fish, with Swimmy as the eye.

Plot Summary from the Center for Philosophy of Children at the University of Washington


After reading or watching the story, students complete a Bravery Graphic Organizer  and discuss the qualities of bravery as shown by the actions of Swimmy. Possible student responses could include overcoming hardship, leading with a clear vision and taking risks.

Students then immerse themselves in research on the Abolitionist Movement using the American Experience website. They fill out this chart with information they find on famous leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Angelina Grimke, John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. In the process, students cultivate a vibrant, real-world definition of bravery inspired by a children’s story and applied to a famous historical event.

What I love about this lesson is that it takes the word “bravery” and immediately calls its definition into question. Often, we use a word like bravery and assume we know what it means. Yet, when we isolate the word and look at it from different perspectives, all of a sudden a once familiar word becomes complex and it becomes necessary to recapture its clarity through critical thinking. All three criteria of a really good question are met.

Though the designer of this lesson, Melissa Kinsey, teaches middle school, I see this activity highly relevant to students in a high school government or history class, where there are many other opportunities to develop operational definitions of words– like “justice” or “fairness“– and then apply these definitions in different settings to build student critical thinking skills.

Download Full Lesson


Featured conversation starter:

Quote: “There is no success without hardship.” Sophocles

Question: Do you have to suffer to be successful?

Student Assignment

This resource is from Teach Different, where you can sign up to receive weekly conversation starters and essential questions.

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