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The House of Dies Drear

Virginia Hamilton

Theme: Prejudice and Principles
Grades: Grades 6-7

In a mystery novel full of "ghostly" discoveries, thirteen-year-old Thomas Small and his family buy a house in Ohio that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. As Thomas explores his new surroundings, he uncovers the secrets of the house, including dark tunnels, hidden passages and Pluto, the old caretaker, who has been protecting a room full of treasures that belonged to the original owner, Dies Drear—a "conductor" for the Underground Railroad. Thomas, Pluto, and Pluto's son Mayhew work together to save the slave artifacts from neighbors, who think the "treasures" in the room are things that can make them rich.

  1. Tapping Prior Knowledge: Slavery and the Underground Railroad.
    Invite students to work together to share what they know about the history of slavery and about the methods used by fugitive slaves and those who helped them escape to northern states and to Canada. Have volunteers record the students' information and ideas on the chalkboard for reference as they read the novel.
  1. Linking to Today: Legacies.
    Bring to class an object that holds personal significance for you. Display the object and describe the associations the object brings to mind to you. Then explain to students what a legacy is. Students can volunteer to bring in objects from their own pasts to exhibit and discuss.
  1. The Layered Look.
    Ask students, individually or in small groups, to use newspaper and magazine pictures and headlines to create collages that communicate the pride that people take in their heritage. Encourage them to express the variety of racial, ethnic, religious, and national heritages found in the United States.

  1. The Voice of the People.
    Ask students to record and present oral histories that explore some aspects of their community or of students' family heritage. Each student should interview someone with a tale to tell—an older relative, friend, neighbor, or community leader. If possible, the interviews should be tape or video recorded; if not, students should try to write down the words of the interviewee as accurately as possible. The oral accounts should then be presented to an audience of fellow students or parents at a Heritage Day celebration.
  1. Extra! Extra!
    Have students assume the role of a newspaper reporter and write a news story about the recent discovery of the Dies Drear house as a station on the Underground Railroad. Your news story should include names, facts, dates, and details about the Underground Railroad for readers unfamiliar with this episode of American history.

  2. Research It!
    Have students write a report about a person famous for their activities during the pre-Civil War period. You may choose someone mentioned in the novel or connected with the events or themes of the novel. Possibilities include Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Dred Scott, Abraham Lincoln, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.