Friday, February 10, 2012

Celebrating Black History Month by Escaping on the Underground Railroad

Every now and then I forget how lucky my family is that we live in an excellent public school district, and our elementary school is particularly notable. And then something amazing slaps me in the face and makes me count my lucky stars. One such event happened this week. I knew nothing about what was going to happen when the call came out for one more parent volunteer, and I stepped forward.

I knew my son's second grade class had been studying the Underground Railroad. They had read stories in class, had discussions, and some worksheets had come home for homework. And they each made a Wanted poster for Harriet Tubman. Those were hanging all over the school. Here are some great read-aloud books to choose from:

What I didn't know until that day (getting my son to tell about his day at school is like pulling teeth), is that they were also studying how the Underground Railroad was marked with signals that would only be familiar to those in the know, including quilt squares. And each students made their own quilt square in one of the actual patterns used.

There was also a simple at-home project component. The students were given a bandana and told it to fill it with three or four items they thought they would need if they were traveling on the Underground Railroad. Of course, the teachers did specify that no food was allowed (that was provided), and nothing dangerous should be included. For my son, this caused quite the dilemma. Eventually, he chose a metal camping cup (he reasoned he could dig with it and use it for drinking and eating), a compass, binoculars, and a journal (he thought someone needed to document the journey). Then they tied the filled bandana to a stick and brought it to school. Yes, I drove my son to school that day. The thought of that stick on the bus was not a pleasant one for me. The doll in the second picture here was one that they made in class.

On the day of the "journey," I arrived as a volunteer and was given very detailed instructions. A path had already been marked with the quilt squares in and around the school. I had step-by-step instructions for each stop, including a detailed map and how much time to spend at each one. I also had a bag of crackers for snack. There were two dads who had volunteered to dress in period clothing and serve as bounty hunters. They carried Harriet Tubman Wanted posters, tried to catch escaping "slaves," and offered rewards to those of us who were friends of the slaves.

Each second grade classroom was split into three groups, led by either a parent volunteer or the teacher. The groups left at five-minute intervals to try to prevent pile-ups at the stops. Here is a description of my group's journey:

We left the classroom (Monkey Wrench quilt) at 8:30 a.m. Each student was carrying their filled knapsack. I told them we had to be very quiet and stick together so the bounty hunters wouldn't catch us. However, let's just say that if it had been a real journey, we would have been doomed. We went out a nearby door (Bear Paw quilt) and wound through some trees just outside the school building. Then we headed back inside and up the stairs (Flying Geese quilt) to a participating third grade classroom (May Basket quilt). Here they were allowed to rest under a table covered by a quilt and have their cracker snack. 

Making the sure the coast was clear, we headed down the hall to the library (Log Cabin quilt) where we rested under a quilt-covered table. Then we snuck out the back door of the library and across the hall to the PTA room and continued down the hall (Birds in the Air quilt). Here is where it got scary. 

Who did we run into, but a bounty hunter! The slaves screamed and darted into another third grade room that was not on the map. Oooops! While I was trying to gather the slaves to continue on our journey and apologizing to the teacher, the slaves instinctively hid under her table. Finally, the bounty hunters were gone, and we could continue on to the The Learning Center room (Drunkard's Path quilt). 

Here we wound around the several round tables in the room and headed out the door and back down a different staircase (Bowtie quilt) where we pretended to get a fresh change of clothes. We headed back up the front hallway to hide under another staircase (Crossroads quilt). We had to stay here for some extra time since those bounty hunters were back. Then we were able to continue into the teacher's entrance to the office (Bear Paw quilt). 

Here is where we got lucky and found another friend to help hide us. It was the vice principal who offered us a safe place to rest. We went out the front office door and down a different hallway to hide under a quilt in an empty room (Log Cabin quilt). We snuck down the hall (Flying Geese quilt) and continued into the cafeteria and onto the stage (Sailboat quilt). 

The stage had several large pieces of blue paper. This was the Great Lakes we had to cross. Finally we saw the door to the outside marked with the North Star quilt. We had made it to freedom in Canada! We celebrated by singing "The Ballad of the Underground Railroad" and "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" that the students had learned in music. Then they ate popcorn and played on the playground.

It was a long, tiresome journey that was dangerous in places, but we made it! What a wonderful way for students to experience the Underground Railroad and celebrate Black History Month!


  1. How wonderfully creative! My first grade class just studied Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. This activity would be great to use next year to make history come alive!

    I went back and edited the post I did when we studied this topic, and I added a link to this post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. WOW! I think that is the best lesson I have ever heard of!

    Think, Wonder, & Teach


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