First Posted: 12/22/2014
LEHMAN — The story of Harriet Tubman and her Underground Railroad has been taught in schools for generations, but the teachers at Lehman-Jackson Elementary took a different approach to teaching it.
The three sixth-grade classes of Lehman-Jackson Elementary took part in a reenactment of the Underground Railroad in which groups of students owere lead by “conductors,” or volunteer parents, as they tried to sneak from one end of the school to the other.
The sixth-grade teachers, Vanessa Parry, Shelene James and Michael Adamshick, served as “bounty hunters” by trying to capture the conductors and the students portraying runaway slaves trying to get to the north.
Parry said the students studied the Underground Railroad through the month of December in class and did their own research and drawing quilts. The quilts were hung on certain rooms in the school and had symbols to let the students and their conductors know they were in a safe spot, meaning the bounty hunters could not capture them as long as they stayed in the room. They were only allowed a certain amount of time in the room before having to move onto the next safe spot en route to Canada, a room otherwise known as the cafeteria.
Safe spots included rooms around the school building where teachers knew there would be no classes, such as the gymnasium, art room and band room. Students were given a map of the school marking the safe spots.
According to Parry, the teachers spent two weeks planning the railroad reenactment, and Adamshick said the hardest part about it is teaching the students to think on their feet in times of trouble.
“I think the most difficult thing about planning it is that plans can change at any minute,” said Adamshick. “Just like when they were traveling and they ran into trouble, they had to think on their feet.”
One group had no trouble thinking its way through trouble as a group of several students including Anya Gramlich, Keera Naugel, Maddison Bredaric, Annika Meeker, Gabby Shonis, Mikayla Krakosky and Lilly Aloi spent their times in the safe spots to strategize on how to get to the next safe spot.
Keera’s mom Jennifer Naugel served as their parent volunteer conductor, and said she was thrilled to be a part of this experience.
“I think it’s a lot of fun and I think it’s a great learning experience,” said Jennifer. “They’re so afraid of becoming slaves, they’re obsessed with getting to the safe houses. I think it really teaches them what it was all about.”
As Jennifer and her group made their way from one safe spot to the next, Jennifer was captured by a bounty hunter, leaving the others on their own to get to Canada.
The girls got separated for a while, but smart thinking reunited all of them at a safe spot where they were able to catch their breath and figure out where to go without their conductor.
Unfortunately, the hour-long activity had to come to a close early so the students did not officially make it Canada, but they lasted the entire hour – a victory all its own.
Some students called the activity “fun” while others said it was “stressful,” but it was teamwork in the end that got them through the experience, especially when they lost their conductor.
“Our whole group got separated, so we went from memory, I guess.” said Keera Naugel.
“We went from memory from what Mrs. Naugel had on our map and we followed our way,” said Bredaric.
The activity concluded with everyone meeting in the cafeteria and performing a sing along of “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Afterwards, everyone was excused to resume to their regular class schedule.
Adamshick believes the activity went a lot better than expected, especially for the first attempt
“I thought it went really great,” said Adamshick, “The whole thing was about thinking on your feet; the plan could change at any minute and you had to adjust. The main point was to get to freedom.”
One faculty member also involved as a bounty hunter was school Principal Donny James, who knew right away he wanted to be a part of the fun experience.
“Mrs. Parry came to me and told me they were doing this activity about the Underground Railroad,” said James. “I thought it was a fantastic idea and they asked if I would participate in it. They had other teachers participate in it and I thought it was a great idea when she explained it to me.”
James also believes the hands-on experience of Underground Railroad served as a better learning experience for the students rather than just reading about it from a book.
“I thought it was a meaningful, motivational way to learn,” said James. “For the kids to learn what it was actually like during those times, instead of just learning about it in class from a book, gives them a better idea of how hard it was for some of the slaves to escape.”