Our two Grade 5 classes have been learning about the history of slavery in the Unites States as well as the Underground Railroad, a system through which slaves escaped to Canada. The students are studying the topic mainly through the novel Underground to Canada by Barbara Smucker, which is set in the United States during the early 1800s. The novel’s young protagonists, Julilly and Liza, meet abolitionists who send them on a journey to freedom.
“It’s an exciting and engaging story that deals with many significant themes,” says teacher Nicky Newsome. “The discussions have been interesting and lively as they deal with the themes and the characters in the story.”
The historical novel is very educational and references real techniques used by slaves and abolitionists. For example, slaves would disguise their speaking about escape by talking about the railroad and how to get to Canada through songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which is mentioned in the novel.
During the novel study Mrs. Newsome and Mrs. Pam Yorath organized many wonderful activities for their students, including reader’s theatre and lantern-making. During the time of the Underground Railroad, a lantern on a hitching post signaled a safe house, where slaves could stop and rest on their journeys, which could take as long as a year. This year they also had a guest speaker, Spencer Robinson, who spoke about the origins of slavery as well as the history of African slaves.
“The students have all been engaged,” says Mrs. Yorath. “They’ve been learning to make connections, formulate questions, make predictions and draw inferences.”
Slavery was outlawed in the United States in 1865, following the American Civil War. Well-known figures from the abolitionist movement include Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.