John Henry Tall Tale Activities and AI

A modern spin on John Henry Tall Tale Activities

I’ve always loved the tall tale John Henry. The concepts of a man versus machine, and man having the right to work. As a child, I read about John Henry and equated his struggle to one men went through during the industrial revolution. I never imagined at the time that AI and the rise of computer technology could jeopardize modern careers. The rise of artificial intelligence has certainly put a new spin on the story, and made the tall tale even more fun to study. I’ve built an entire unit around John Henry and related the story to modern times.

John Henry Tall Tale Activities with a modern spin


The folktale of John Henry has lasted over the years because his character is so relatable. John Henry is an honest man, who simply wants to work for honest pay. I like to begin the unit by reading and discussing a book about him with my class. We discuss his character and what he believed in.


While reading about John Henry’s life, you can incorporate Science by discussing how technology helps humans do things faster and is always changing. You can also discuss how technology replaces the jobs of humans, but new jobs are always created as a result of the new technology. Students will enjoy discussing what they’ve learned about artificial intelligence and how it is changing our world today.

John Henry lends itself to a goods and services social studies unit. Your class can learn about how people can provide services, or help create goods in our economy. Students can also learn about our roles as consumers, which lends itself nicely to your math curriculum. Students can do math problems where they can determine how much money people have to spend. Students can also create shopping lists or budgets. Many John Henry activities can round out your unit.

Another take on your Social Studies unit could be that John Henry was the first baby in his family to be born free. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay was important to John Henry because his ancestors could not work for pay. This would be a good connection for your African-American history unit.


This John Henry Tall Tale Activities Lesson introduces students to metaphors and similes. It also includes activities for students to practice finding and creating them. The lesson has reading passages about John Henry built into it. I love having students read different versions of folk tales. The best part of this lesson is that it brings art into your unit by allowing students to make their own John Henry pop-up/diorama books. Students have so much fun creating these, and they make a beautiful bulletin board.

John Henry tall tale activity pop-up book diorama


I love ending thematic units with field trips. Depending on where you live there will be different choices. A quick search for STEM field trips in your area should yield some exciting results. Another fun idea is to also take a virtual field trip to a museum, planetarium, or aquarium. This will give students a first-hand experience of how technology is changing their lives.

For more fun ideas, check out this month’s Teacher Talk

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John Henry Tall Tale Activities and AI
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