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Southwestern elementary students experience Underground Railroad

By ROSS FLINT - rflint@shelbynews.com

Southwestern Elementary fourth-graders were roaming around the school hallways on Friday morning, but they weren’t tardy and they weren’t lost.

The students were going from classroom to classroom, looking to receive enough signatures from teachers, or “friends,” who had agreed to participate and had signs outside their classroom signifying their participation as part of an Underground Railroad simulation activity.

The activity allowed students to get an idea first-hand of what it was like traveling the Underground Railroad, a topic the fourth grade learned about during the week.

The goal was to get enough signatures from teachers on the “friend” side of a form they had, to escape to Canada. The other half of the form had “foe.” The determination of whether a teacher was a foe or friend was based on a coin flip.

“We made it to Canada!” one student said to her friend, giving her a high-five after they returned to the classroom.

Megan Oliver, the STEM and science and social studies teacher who ran the activity, said she wanted to give her students the opportunity to experience what it must have been like for those African-Americans attempting to escape slavery. After all of the students returned to class, she asked those who had escaped and reached Canada how they felt, and likewise how those who were caught felt.

“The first group had a blast with it,” she said as the second group was out. “I’ve heard nothing but good things from (participating) teachers.”

She said as she’s grown her curriculum, she’s tried to bring more activities like the Underground Railroad simulation into her classroom.

“I feel kids benefit from that,” she said. “They really grasp the concept. They use that imagination, they can grasp the concepts that are so far out there.”

At that age, she said it’s hard for students to understand the difficulties African-Americans suffered through.

“It’s hard for them to wrap their heads around it,” she said.

When she was growing up, one of her teachers participated in a similar activity. She was inspired by that and found a simulation on TeachersPayTeachers.com that she decided to use in the classroom.

“I want them to enjoy history and make those connections,” she said. “It might seem far away but they’re connected somehow. It helps them understand the past. I want it to come to life.”

Of 43 students between the two classes, 17 reached freedom, 18 were caught and eight ran out of time collecting signatures.

“If they can understand the past, it’s possible they can make changes in the future,” she said.