The two Grade 5 classes have both been learning about the history of slavery in North America through a study of the novel Underground to Canada and other activities. The students have performed reader’s theatre, researched abolitionists, examined lyrics of songs sung by slaves and made lanterns, which followed the codes used by slaves in their journey to Canada.
Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada follows two young girls as they flee north to find freedom. The Children’s Book Center named the piece of historical fiction one of the 50 best books of all time in Canada and The New York Times called the book “remarkable for its fine characterization and its insightful narrative…all children should read it.”
The students brought history to life through their reader’s theatre performances, inspired by the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, an African-American author, statesman and reformer. They also wrote and performed monologues based on their research of other abolitionists, portraying the figures as they imagined them to be.
To reflect upon the position of a slave in society, much like the protagonist in their novel study, the students did several activities. Through a charcoal sketch and a diary entry, students demonstrated their knowledge of the hardships faced by the slaves and developed a personal understanding of what life was like for them.
The lanterns they made were tools used by slaves looking to flee up to Canada, and featured designs that would signal others as to where they could find help. The students also studied many songs, which were also used by slaves to communicate coded directions of escape.
Grade 5 teachers Mrs. Cook and Mrs. Yorath asked their classes to reflect on what they had learned from their studies, and found the students all had a lot to say.
“I really learned lots from the book Underground to Canada and about how slaves were captured and how they escaped.”
“I liked writing my research because I like making up stories and writing research in my own way.”
“My favourite activity that we did was to make charcoal pictures of slaves and to write about a pretend slave. We had to use our imagination to think of what a slave might look like and say.”
“I enjoyed drawing the charcoal pictures of slaves and typing up a first-person day-in-the-life of a slave. It was really fun and helped me learn about first-person writing.”
“What I really enjoyed was doing our Frederic Douglass reader’s theatre. The acting was fun and educational because we read and saw what it was like.”
“After we hammered the tins, Mrs. Yorath helped us put vanilla scented candles inside the tins. Then, we lit them and turned out the lights. It was an amazing sight to see so many tin lanterns lit.”
“When the teacher mentioned we could choose an abolitionist to research, I was so excited because we were allowed to pick which one we wanted to do. But later on I found out that it wasn’t as easy as it sounded to find all the information and to put it into paragraphs.”
“I found it hard to believe how slaves were treated.”