Monday, May 22, 2006

Giggling Your Way to Freedom

One of the most enjoyable things for many teenagers is the opportunity to be sneaky. In my experience, they love to feel that they are "getting away" with something regardless of what that something may be. Since pulling the wool over authoritative eyes is just plain fun for so many of them, it is not surprising that the Underground Railroad simulation was such a huge success.

In the 8th grade, the State of Washington has determined that kids should study American history. The rough estimate time period for this history is about 1796-1865. One major unit during this course is about slavery and the economy of the Deep South. Of course there are many possible ways to teach this material, but our 8th grade team has opted to do something a little different (and, in my opinion, much better) than the standard textbook, notes, test format. First the kids read non-fiction accounts of slave life, and also textbook chapters about the politics and economics of slavery. Next, they do a research project to get an in depth look at different figures of the anti-slavery movement, and they write an essay identifying the contributions of this figure. Last, but not least, they get to take part in a simulation.

The simulation is basically a game in which the kids play the role of slaves who are trying to escape from bondage in the south (their classrooms) and make their way to freedom in the north (the upper sports field). They must trust the good will of conductors (other students) and station masters (teachers) along the way, and they know that bounty hunters (the principals and councilors) will be actively searching for them at all times. They must follow a map, visit the safehouses (indicated by a secret sign), and collect tokens to prove that they've made the whole journey. Above all, they must not get caught or else they have to return to their plantations and do hard labor (real work such as scrubbing desks or weeding flower beds).

I am a huge fan of simulations, so when the 8th grade team asked for volunteers to play station masters, I jumped at the chance to help. My classroom door proudly displayed the secret sign (a quilt square with a red center) and I explained the whole thing to the students in my classes. On the day of the event, we did not see anyone for quite a while, but about half way through 1st period a group of slaves and their conductor burst in looking for a place to hide. We quickly hid them away in the closets and under tables, and just as we did, the bounty hunter arrived. The bounty hunters (working hard to be serious and mean-looking) searched the room and grilled the kids. We kept saying that we didn't know anything, but the bounty hunter was in no mood to believe us. He caught one of the kids hiding in the closet because they had the unfortunate need to giggle uncontrollably. Nevertheless, the others managed to keep silent, and they were not discovered. It was really quite a sight. Kids were darting silently through the halls, ducking into classrooms, and even climbing out of windows (in classrooms where the teachers were dumb, in mean kind, enough to allow it). This is an experience like nothing else and they love it. The most surprising part (to me anyway) was the fact that they really didn't abuse the privilege. Not one kid landed in the office for being out of bounds, harassing others, or any other crime that they might have been tempted to commit.

All throughout the day, groups of slaves and station masters came through our classroom. My students did not get overly much done since they were always on pins and needles about when they next group might come. However, we had some incredible discussions about racism, the practice of dehumanizing others, the power of cultural influences, and the effects of fear on the human mind. Teenagers are famous for being apathetic, lazy, and even stupid, and frequently they do display these unfortunate traits. However, when you really catch their interest in something real and serious, it is amazing just how sharp they can be.

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