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Amazing Grace cover image Amazing Grace
The Story of the Hymn
by Linda Granfield
illustrated by Janet Wilson


Themes include: history, slavery, language, music, religion
About this book:

The words to the popular hymn "Amazing Grace" were written by a man who was both a slave trader and abolitionist. John Newton was a man of paradoxes: for many years he earned his living from the slave trade, and yet he was for a short while a slave himself, planting lime trees in Sierra Leone. A horrific storm at sea in 1748 led Newton to his new life as a minister and anti-slavery activist. He recollected both his deliverance from the storm, and his life without God, in his most famous creation.


Excercises:

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1. Take time before reading the book to consider carefully the two words that comprise its title. First, think about everything that comes to mind when you hear the word "amazing." Consider amazing sights, amazing activities, amazing feelings. Next, use a dictionary (or better yet, several dictionaries) to explore the various meanings of the word "grace." Some dictionaries will have a number of definitions of "grace"; as you look at the book's cover illustration, try to decide which of the dictionaries' definitions might most relate to the story you are about to read. (linguistic)


bullet 2. Interview someone you know (perhaps a grandparent or a neighbor) about the hymn "Amazing Grace." What do they know about it? Where have they heard it sung? Has it ever been performed for an occasion that they especially remember? Make a collection of quotations from people who have special memories about the hymn. Consider recording the recollections of the people you interview, and invite them to sing a bit of the hymn for you. Display the quotations on a bulletin board, or build a web page where you can present the quotations and the voices. (interpersonal)

bullet 3. What is a hymn? Who sings hymns? Where are they sung? What do hymns have in common that makes them different from other types of songs? Do you know the names of any hymns? (musical, logical, linguistic)

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bullet 4. Sometimes people take a long time to make a change in the way they live their lives. Have you made any changes in your life, such as moving, trying something new, or making a new friend? What types of changes seem to happen suddenly? What types of changes take place gradually? What changes are we able to make choices about? What changes seem to be beyond our control? (intrapersonal)

bullet 5. This book is about a man named John Newton who lived a life that was at times difficult and unhappy, at times pleasant and peaceful. Construct a time line that will help you to understand John's life in the context of his times. (Try using a roll of adding-machine tape to make your time line. Use a ruler. Let one centimeter equal one year.) Begin your time line in the year 1725, when John was born. Mark off twelve centimeters, and write the year 1737, the year John first went to sea. In this same way, add the following dates to the time line:
 1741 (approximately) - John Newton was a slave on a lime plantation in Sierra Leone, Africa.

 1745 (approximately) - John began to work on ships that transported slaves.

 1748 - John almost lost his life at sea in a dreadful storm off the coast of Newfoundland. He prayed, "If this will not do, the Lord have mercy upon us." The ship survived the storm.

 1754 - John Newton resigned from his job as captain of a ship that transported slaves.

 1763 - John became a clergyman in Olney, England.

 1771 - Together with his friend William Cowper, a poet, John published a book of hymns, which included the one known as "Amazing Grace."

 1775 - The American colonies declared themselves to be independent from England, and the American War of Independence began.

 1780 - John Newton moved to London and met William Wilberforce, a politician who was trying to persuade England's Parliament to make slavery illegal.

 1783 - The American War of Independence ended.

 1788 - John wrote a pamphlet that described his "Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade." He was trying to convince the government that slavery was an unlawful and evil thing.

 1789 - The French Revolution began. French people fought against their own government and got rid of their king and queen in 1793.

 1792 - Almost half a million British citizens signed petitions asking that the slave trade be abolished, but they were defeated, and the slave trade continued.

 1807 - John Newton died at the age of 82. That same year, Britain abolished the slave trade, meaning that slaves would not be "imported" as cargo from other countries.

 1838 - Slavery itself became illegal in England and its colonies.

 1865 - Slavery became illegal in the United States.


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  When your time line is completed, look closely at how much time passed between the major events in John Newton's life. How many years went by before he stopped being part of the slave trade? How many more years passed before the slave trade finally ended?

  Consider some reasons why it might have taken so long for governments to pass laws making slavery illegal. Imagine waiting thirty, or fifty, or a hundred years for something to change. What year would it be in the future if you had to wait that long? How old would you be? What do you think you would be doing then? (logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic)

bullet 6. When John Newton worked as a slave, he lived in Sierra Leone, a country in the western part of Africa. Many of the African slaves were taken aboard ships off the coast of Sierra Leone. Find Sierra Leone on a map. Look at the shape of the land, the mountains, and the rivers. Do some research about Sierra Leone as it is today. What does it look like? What do people do there? Do they still grow limes, as they did when John Newton was young? ? Do plantations still exist? (spatial)

bullet 7. Buy a lime at the grocery store. See if you can tell where it was grown. How do you think it may have come to your town? Cut it open and smell it. Taste it. Do some research on a disease called "scurvy" and see if you can explain why limes were so important on sea voyages like the ones John Newton made. (bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic)

bullet 8. Do some research on the history of slavery. When and where in the world have people had slaves? What causes someone to become a slave? What are some of the ways people throughout history have struggled against slavery? (linguistic, logical-mathematical)

bullet 9. (For older students.) The final page of this book tells us that slavery still exists today, in our own time, in our own world. What can you find out about modern-day slavery? Use up-to-date research sources such as newspapers, news magazines, and web sites. Discover what sorts of work slaves do, who is enslaving them, where they live, and if and how they travel from place to place. (linguistic, logical-mathematical)

bullet 10. From the book Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn we learn that when John Newton was alive, hymn books contained only the words, not the melodies, to the hymns: "People chanted the printed verses, imitating the singing of each line by a leader." What are some ways that we share melodies with each other today? What role do electricity and radio waves play in our capacity to share music with one another? Try this variation on the old game of "Operator" or "Pass It On": With a class group, divide the students into four sections. Take one section into another room and teach them to sing "Amazing Grace" (or perhaps a less familiar song). Then ask the first group to teach the second group using only their voices (no instruments or notations). The second group then teaches the third group and so on. Have the fourth group sing it for the whole class. Discuss this process with the whole class: How did it feel trying to pass the song along? What happened to the song as it was passed from group to group? (musical, bodily-kinesthetic)

  You might extend this activity into a discussion of the sorts of things the kidnapped African people could bring with them onboard the ship. Often the only things they could transport were the things they could carry in their heads: their language, their stories, and their songs. Research some West African folk songs, and try to bring in recordings of songs or tales told by the "griots," the traditional African storytellers. Try to imagine ways of remembering and passing on these songs, using only voices and simple instruments. (musical, linguistic)

bullet 11. Consider three periods in John Newton's life: his childhood, his time as a captain on a slave ship, and his old age, when he was a preacher and an abolitionist. Write and perform a short play in three acts, with each act corresponding to one of those three periods. For each act, show John Newton in dialogue with another person (real or fictitious) as he tries to make a difficult decision. Be sure to consider the setting for each scene, and try to convey the emotions the people in the play might be feeling. (linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily-kinesthetic)

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bullet 12. We learn from this book about the terrible, crowded conditions of the captured Africans onboard the slave ships. On some ships, platforms divided the space in such a way that slaves had less than a meter of space (less than three feet) in which to crouch, all day and all night. To help you understand what this may have been like, try spending an hour under a table. While you are there, keep a journal in which you record your physical feelings, your emotions, and what you notice of the world around you. Try to stay there for a full hour without standing up or moving around. This will give you some sense of the discomfort the slaves felt as they lived in such a small space for days or weeks at a time. (bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal)

bullet 13. Many of us today find it very hard to believe that someone would choose to be involved in the slave trade. Even John Newton continued to be a captain of a slave ship for quite some time after he felt "saved" by divine mercy during a storm. It is hard to understand why someone would make such a choice, but an important part of understanding history is being able to grasp the many and complex reasons why people made the choices that they did. To look more closely at this issue, divide a piece of paper into two columns. Title one "Advantages of being the captain of a slave ship," and title the other: "Advantages of quitting the slave trade." Try to find information in Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn to list in both columns. When you finish, talk with someone, or write a short essay, explaining what choice you think is the better one, based on the evidence you gathered from the book. (logical-mathematical)

Related texts:

Slave Dancer by Paula Fox. The story of a young New Orleans boy who is kidnapped and forced to play his pipe aboard a slave ship so that the slaves can "dance" and get their exercise. A well-written but difficult and sometimes disturbing book for older readers (grades six and up).

Amazing Grace. A Bill Moyers special, available on video, in which he explores the history of the hymn and speaks with people about its impact on their lives.



Appendix

The Olney Pancake Race - It's a race that takes place in the town where John Newton lived and wrote the song. Join the fun and have your own Pancake Race.

Other Tundra Teacher Guides:

Charlotte, Dippers, The Legend of the Panda, The Long Road, Lucy Maud and the Cavendish Cat, A Mountain Alphabet, Silent Night

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