First, I would like to say that this topic is not part of our official third grade social studies units. So, why did I choose this topic? Over the years that I've taught elementary school I have noticed a lot of confusion surrounding African American history. I've had numerous students after reading about Martin Luther King Jr, ask if he "freed the slaves". While reading various picture books that either focus on an African American or a topic in African American history I have many students ask questions during the reading that often surprise me. One such question is, "What is a slave?" And while I always answer these questions I have been surprised at how many of my students are either confused about or don't know just a little bit about our African American history. Their knowledge at best is very superficial. And when I do answer questions I often feel like I am just skimming the surface and there is so much more I would like them to know! Every time I share books or talk about Martin Luther King, Jr and the civil rights movement I have felt like there was a big piece missing. So that question that so many of my students had: "What is a slave?" or "What is slavery?" turned into an inquiry circle. It wasn't long until that question morphed into "Why was there slavery?".
I began by reading several picture books to introduce the topic of slavery in America. One of my favorites was Now Let Me Fly: The Story of a Slave Family by Dolores Johnson. It is a fictional story about a young girl kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. It is not a pleasant story and doesn't have a happy ending, but my students were riveted, shocked and had so many questions afterward. This is exactly what I wanted - they had bought in and wanted and needed to know more.
I decided to use the Underground Railroad Scholastic website for our internet research. It it well put together, in chronological order and used a lot of primary documents as well. In addition, it gives students the ability to listen to the text as well. This was important since there was so much new vocabulary and the text could be challenging at times. Students would work in partnerships to read, discuss and take notes on each section of the website. Each partnership used one computer. This kept them focused on collaborating. This portion of the research took a LONG time due to limited access to computers and the fact that they are 8 and 9 years old! There were many lessons on collaboration - how to listen and have a conversation. There were lessons on how to read and understand the text - how to reread, how to notice when you are confused, noticing important vocabulary, asking further questions. There were note-taking lessons - using 3 column charts to note our new learning, questions and important vocabulary, learning to reread our notes often. Periodically, we had whole class discussions about our learning and questions. An important idea that we explored was noting our misconceptions. As students began to read about the Underground Railroad I knew it would be difficult for them to understand that it was not a real railroad. There were several days of discussion before most of the class began to realize it was a symbol or metaphor for escape. (They did not use those terms!)
When we weren't in the computer lab or using the chromebooks with our school librarian, we were reading the book, If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America by Anne Kamma. This is a great non-fiction books for third graders because each chapter or section has a question as the title. Students were divided into cooperative groups. I gave each group a different set of chapters from the book to read together and take notes on. Later each group taught the rest of our class their sections of the book.
As our research started to come to a close I began thinking of ways my students could share what they learned. I decided to have them write slave narratives. Each student would tell their story as an escaped slave, writing in first person. In addition, I decided to have them do this in a Google document. This would be the first time they would type a long piece of writing in Documents. Prior to this they had only used Google Presentation and Draw, but this had provided the practice they needed to get familiar with the keyboard. They clicked away with one or two fingers fairly quickly! A link to their slave narratives is available on our class blog. Just scroll to the bottom of the page.
During the time I was planning this inquiry unit a discussion began on twitter and other social media regarding the depiction of slaves in the book, A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall. I read all the tweets, blogs and comments surrounding the book and hope I have learned a lot and am a better teacher because of these discussions. But I will admit that I was even more nervous about teaching this unit! What if I did it wrong? I am white. Do I have enough understanding of the topic to teach it to my students? Yikes! But then I thought back to the 8 year old Debbie, back in third grade, in 1968, living and going to school in a suburb where everyone looked like me. That little girl went to the library and checked out a book on Harriet Tubman. That little girl cried and cried over that book. That little girl wondered why she hadn't learned about Harriet in school. That little girl went back to the library to learn more. It's with that little girl, that little Debbie (pardon the pun) in mind, that I tried to create an inquiry circle that would encourage my students to learn more.
I will close with one last story. As students were peer editing their documents I heard this comment. "Your narrative is so good, it makes me want to cry."