The students and I settled down for the year. I quickly discovered that about the same number had difficulty with reading as in other grade-school classes I’d taught. About the same number were good in math or science or any subject we tackled. A few were avid readers. Several showed an intellectual curiosity I’d met before. Conclusion: these students were just like all those I’d taught. Only . . . and this only was big . . . only they were poor and destitute.
They had no books, magazines, or newspapers in their homes to read. They hadn’t been to a library, museum, or art gallery. Some had never been in a movie theater. They had no money to ride public transportation so their world was the neighborhood of the inner city. That is to say, they seldom, if ever, got out of its confines. Some had never seen the downtown area of Dayton, so they’d never visited a department store.
As the weeks passed, one thing became clear: I’d been educated in white schools. I’d studied white textbooks. I’d been taught about white inventors, presidents, entrepreneurs, explorers, kings. I learned the history of the conquerors—who were white.
I had no stories to tell about black men and women. About black history. I had no stories to tell about people—black or white—who’d grown up in poverty. I was ignorant of any history that went beyond the exploits of whites. I knew nothing about the culture of the black community or that of poverty.
So together the students and I set out to learn. Together we devised a unit on the Underground Railroad. This appealed to all the students—both black and white—because the story of slaves escaping the South held suspense, creativity, cunning, danger.
I introduced the topic by talking about Harriet Tubman, the famous Underground “conductor.” None of the students had ever heard about this “network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th century black slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. . . .The Underground Railroad was at its height between 1850 and 1860. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the ‘Railroad.’” (from Wikipedia)
The unit the students and I devised enabled us to use all the subjects in our curriculum. To incorporate all subjects, the students did the following:
· estimated mileage from various southern states to Canada
· wrote messages using the terminology of the railroad, which served as a metaphor for the escape routes
· devised codes so as to follow the cryptic messages of escape
· studied the role Dayton and the state of Ohio played in the Underground Railroad
· drew pictures of the flora and fauna of all the southern states and the northern escape routes
· learned the names of the constellations and where they were in the night sky during the four seasons of the year
· drew sky maps and learned the Greek stories behind the constellations
· learned how to use a compass
· read poetry by Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Countee Cullen and wrote poems about imaginary escapes
· wrote and performed plays about escaping along the Underground Railroad
· studied the lives of abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Harriet Beecher Stowe
· wrote short stories about the life and adventures of Harriet Tubman
· drew maps of escape routes and illustrated them with the flora and fauna along the way
· and more . . .
Map detailing the Underground Railroad escape routes.
For my part, I had to spend evenings at the local library trying to find out all I could about the Underground Railroad. This was difficult because publishers were only beginning to realize that the United States was ready for books about black history. As I learned more, I was better able to inspire the students to think of new things we could study.
Of course to do all that we did, the students needed reference books. I checked out as many as the local library allowed. I also encouraged students to get a free library card and check out books. Many did. The school itself had a small library with a worn set of encyclopedia. The students toted these up to our classroom for daily work.
Months passed while we worked on this unit. Afterward, I wrote an article for a leading educational magazine about it. With the fee from that, I bought a book for each student to take home and read. This in itself was a lesson for them: The work they did in school could lead to making money and that money could be spent on books. And of course that first unit of study led us to devising a second, on the inner city and life in Dayton in 1968-69.
On Tuesday I’ll share with you how the students inspired me.
(Continued on Tuesday . . . )
Both illustrations are from the Wikipedia topic “The Underground Railroad.”