Zora Neale Hurston and the WPA in Florida

Lesson Plans

Zora Neale Hurston and the Significance of the Railroad Lining Chants
4th Grade Lesson Plan


Zora Neale Hurston is most often remembered as a gifted novelist with a knack for capturing the essence of the lives of rural Southerners, especially in Florida. She was also, however, a folklorist who helped the Federal Writers’ Project document the lives and traditions of African-Americans during the Great Depression. Hurston’s work has been instrumental in writing the history of African-American individuals and communities, and it serves as an excellent illustration of the New Deal in action.

In this audio recording, Hurston chronicles a railroad lining rhythm. These chants were sung by workers to keep pace as they built railroad tracks across Florida. She also talks about the process for lining railroad tracks and about the significance of the chants.


Students will:

  • Analyze a primary source documents (audio recording).
  • Write about history using primary sources.
Materials Needed
  1. Sound Recording Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives.
  2. Zora Neale Hurston audio recordings (below).
Let's Shake It (Download)

This is a track-lining chant that Hurston learned at a railroad camp in Callahan, Florida. "A rail weighs 900 pounds and the men have to take these lining bars and get it in shape to spike it down and while they're doing that they have a chant and also some songs that they use the rhythm to work it into place. And then the boss hollers 'bring me my hammer gang' and they start to spike it down."

Part I: Introducing Content
  1. Activate prior knowledge.
    • Ask students what they know about Zora Neale Hurston.
    • Ask students what they know about how railroads were built in the 1930s.

  2. Introduce the document.
    • Tell students that they are going to listen to a track lining song that was collected by Zora Neale Hurston.
    • Tell students that Hurston learned this song at a railroad camp in Callahan, Florida.
Part II: Sound Recording Analysis
  1. Distribute copies of the sound recording analysis worksheet.
  2. Play the recording of Zora Neale Hurston talking about and singing the railroad track-lining rhythm “Let’s Shake It.”
  3. Have students work individually or in small groups to complete the worksheet.
  4. Work through the sound recording analysis worksheet as a group, and have the students share their answers.
  5. Discuss the historical implications of the recording. How does this add to the students' knowledge of the challenges that Floridians faced during the Great Depression? What did they learn about the railroad industry in the 1930s in Florida? What did they learn about Zora Neale Hurston?
Part III: Written Response

Students should write brief journal responses to the recording, focused on what they learned about the railroad industry in the 1930s in Florida.


Next Generation Sunshine State Standards
  • MU.4.H.2.1: Perform, listen to, and discuss music related to Florida’s history.
  • SS.4.A.1.1: Analyze primary and secondary resources to identify significant individuals and events throughout Florida history.
  • SS.4.A.1.2: Synthesize information related to Florida history through print and electronic media.
  • SS.4.A.6.1: Describe the economic development of Florida’s major industries.
    Examples of industries may include, but are not limited to, timber, citrus, cattle, tourism, phosphate, cigar, railroads, bridges, air conditioning, sponge, shrimping, and wrecking (pirating).
  • SS.4.A.7.2: Summarize challenges Floridians faced during the Great Depression.
Florida Standards
  • LAFS.K12.R.2.6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • LAFS.4.RI.3.7: Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
  • LAFS.4.SL.1.2: Paraphrase portions of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.


Extension Activity

Students may analyze a second recording of Zora Neale Hurston to glean additional information. In this recording, Hurston discusses track lining and sings the railroad track lining rhythm, “Shove It Over.”

Shove It Over (Download)

This is a railroad lining rhythm, which was generally distributed throughout Florida. Hurston learned the song from Charlie Jones on a railroad construction camp near Lakeland, Florida, in 1933.

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