This week I announced that we were going on a field trip that did not require signed permission forms. We were going on an imaginary field trip that would require courage, open minds, and a willingness to be other than who we are. We would go back in time and meet people on this field trip who would teach us amazing lessons in survival–because even though they were willing to die, they didn’t. We were going to go on a railroad that wasn’t real–not because it was imaginary, but because it was a metaphor. We would meet the conductor who was real, but was not really a conductor. She saved lives. Lots of lives. I told them we would break laws, but not to worry, the Supreme Court would later use the Constitution to change those laws to protect equality. That is what the Constitution does. It makes life more fair.
We’d studied Dr. King and Rosa Parks. We’d walked back in history by looking at Kadir Nelson’s beautiful paintings in Heart and Soul, starting at the end. Now it was time to tackle slavery, but I did not want my students over-identifying with privilege or enslavement based on the color of their skin. I shared this dilemma with a non-teacher friend on a walk. She suggested I start with a book like Cinderella. I knew this was right. My favorite version is Cynthia Rylant’s beautiful retelling.
I have developed my process of using literature in the classroom over time. I choose a book for morning meeting. I read. We “drop into silence” and reflect on what I’ve read. I then ask the “Big Question.” My students use the Big Question to reflect some more and share with the people around them. Then we come back to the group.
A Big Question must have more than one right answer, and the answers must be supported by the text. The children use the Big Question, along with their critical thinking skills, to uncover the layers.
The Big Question: How can this story help us understand slavery?
This begins my very important work as a teacher. I listen and repeat. Listen and restate. Listen and elevate. I elevate words to the concepts that slip into the room on the wings of my children’s insights: Listen. Restate. Elevate. Overarching themes come into focus. They float above our heads like crepe paper streamers. We reach for them and use them to organize our ideas.
One child starts, “Cinderella had to help the sisters get ready to go to the ball, but she was not allowed to go.”
Listen. Restate. Elevate word to concept.
“You are saying that she was denied the right to go to the ball? She did not have the same rights as her sisters? She did not have the same access?”
“The stepsisters were getting everything they needed because Cinderella was doing all the work. And Cinderella was not getting what she needed.” Her basic human rights were denied.
“The sisters were about greed and power.” Greed and power can oppress.
“Maybe they wanted Cinderella with them at first, but they stopped seeing her and just saw the work she did. They stopped treating her as a person. It was like they didn’t know who she was.” Let’s look at the word “dehumanize.”
As we move around the circle in response to the Big Question, children can agree, disagree, add to, wonder about, hypothesize, build a theory, or pass. If they answer, they back up their thinking with the text and refer to the previous answers of their fellow inquirers.
The children who passed the first time around the circle now had their hands high in the air and added their thinking to our conversation. We were ready for the field trip.
I had packed carefully for our imaginary field trip. I had the art of Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringold. I had the music of the Underground Railroad. I had the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. I had beautifully illustrated children’s books with artwork to inform our historical imagination (with imaginary field trips, you can’t leave home without it). We took along curiosity and the questions that would uncover the majesty of courage and the glorious fight for our freedoms.
We came back from our trip singing the songs that had been used as code. Wade in the Water, wade in the water, children… We wrote and drew about all that we’d seen. We saw a lot on that trip. We knew what we were looking for.