Slavery. Probably one of the most horrific things our world has lived. Tackling issues of racism and power is no easy task for any teacher. It’s hard to make the lived experiences of slaves real but it’s our duty to do it and do it right. This history can be taught in a sensitive and critical manner, especially when we concentrate on people who fought injustice, and those who sought freedom.
I’d like to share with you a simulation that I involved my students in while studying Ontario’s early settlers, a little project I embarked upon first with a great teacher, Cynthia R. when we team-taught, a few years back.
Rather than allow my students to get a one-dimensional view of what early settler communities might have been like (as prescribed by the Grade 3 Ontario curriculum), I found multiple entry points to talk about communities that are usually under- or un-represented in resources about settlers (“pioneers”). It’s beyond the scope of this post to discuss everything that I did to prepare my students for learning about freedom-seeking slaves, but you should know that I did a huge amount of work with them on both The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and also the various First Nations living in what we now know as Ontario, – (The Haudenasaunee and Anishnaabe Nations), – at the time of early settlements. After MUCH work, many read alouds, discussions and above all, dramatizations of history, my students embarked upon a simulation of the Underground Railroad. Here’s the letter I wrote to school staff to get them involved. It should explain the gist of what I did:
As some of you know, my grade 3′s are learning about early settler communities in Ontario. One of the communities we’ll be learning about is early Black settlements.
We are exploring the Underground Railroad as a part of this and need your help. Here are the details:
My students have one life card that they must get to a conductor, but it must happen at 10 a.m. on any given day on the dot. I have given three teachers, the roles of “conductors”. As such, everyone else can choose to be an abolitionist or a helping freed slave and help to get the students to freedom. I have told students that some people in the school might pose a threat to any freedom-seekers because I want them to use their wit, not because there is a threat. You can be an abolitionist and secretly offer to help to get their cards/lives to safety but it has to be at 10 a.m. otherwise the conductors have been instructed to keep the cards as “caught” (if they are even a few minutes late). If you want to be an abolitionist and get the word out the the freedom-seekers, feel free to sing songs or make visible, symbols of freedom (quilts, lanterns, etc) at you convenience to guide them to safety posts or the safe houses of the conductors. Any one, including other students can help as long as I don’t find out.
Next week, I’ll deconstruct the whole simulation with my students as I reveal who made it to freedom and discuss what could have happened to those whose cards were not saved.
Thanks for helping us to bring learning to life!
What ensued that week was very interesting. Students were hesitant to get their life cards to people. They were trying hard to figure out if the symbols that were placed around the school meant safety. We had read many books about former slaves finding freedom through wit, strength, courage and the help of others but they didn’t want to budge. I secretly enlisted other students from a class to help (sometimes without much success) and our music teacher got heavily involved teaching the kids “spirituals” and songs that had clues to help get the kids to freedom. Quilts were hung on doorways, there was talk in the playground and in the halls.
In the end, many of the kids used their savvy, their knowledge of clues and courage to get their freedom cards to others. A few went on instinct and all of them attempted to use the clues I read about in story after story. Most relied on solidarity.
When we deconstructed the whole situation as a class and with the help of one of the “conductors”, it was emotionally-charged. We talked about the weathered, torn life cards…what might that symbolize? We talked about the limitations I imposed at 10 a.m. and what it meant in real terms about the limitations set upon real slaves trying to seek freedom: working the fields all day and little time to plan and amass information/ resources; the possibility of getting caught and the consequences of that; weather changes that were unpredictable making it difficult to leave – prolonged rain was good because you were not expected to show up in the fields and a scent was difficult to track; lack of resources, emotional constraints such as fear; etc.)
The discussions about fairness and injustice became very real to them. My students had had a hard time understanding how people could be put through such cruelty when we talked about the slave trade. Many were frightened. But when we explored the possibility of escaping slavery, most of them actually attempted this simulation. They were inspired by the stories of hope, determination and strength of character and felt bound to “do right” by the people who had lived this.
Though, this was a an unconventional way to bring about learning, I saw huge growth in their ability to criticially analyze the past and come to terms with the genocide that impacted 21 million people, 7 million of which never even survived the journey across the Atlantic. Doing this simulation didn’t make it easier my the kids to digest the history I was throwing at them, and quite frankly, I’m relieved to know that they are horrified and cannot fathom this part of history. What was positive about it was helping them to see beyond themselves, to step into another’s shoes, to empathize and take action, and yes, to break rules when they are unjust.