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Climb Aboard the Underground Railroad T.O.U.R.!

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A project that assists teachers and students who are studying the Underground Railroad has gone global with its own Web site. This growing endeavor is looking for new members, and what better time could there be to join than during this February, Black History Month? The coordinators of this project say, "Climb aboard!" You will share, learn, and uncover a bit of America's lost past.

Celebrate Black History Two years ago, Ohio teacher Kim Kozbial-Hess designed an online project that brought together three schools to study the Underground Railroad.

Last year, the project expanded to nine schools and earned a name -- Project T.O.U.R. (short for Teachers of the Underground Railroad).

This year, the Underground Railroad project is building steam. Kozbial-Hess has teamed up with Jim Wenzloff, a technology consultant, to create a new Web presence for the project -- The Underground Railroad T.O.U.R.!

The two educators hope many teachers will jump on board the T.O.U.R. this year!

THE PROJECT TAKES OFF!

Kozbial-Hess, a fourth-grade teacher at Fall-Meyer Elementary School in Toledo, has always been heavily involved in social studies education in her state. The idea for the Underground Railroad T.O.U.R. was born three years ago at a conference session she attended. Many teachers in that session about the Underground Railroad had a clear interest in the topic.

"I already taught this topic as part of the fourth-grade curriculum on Ohio studies," Kozbial-Hess told Education World. After the session, she returned to her school and shared an idea with her principal. "She was very excited and has been instrumental in assisting me with grants to carry out the project," Kozbial-Hess recalled.

When the project debuted, Hess was working in her school district as an educational technology trainer. That year, "the students met online and in person through field trips," said Kozbial-Hess, adding, "we worked together to come up with a brochure and a booklet on UGRR sites in our area and throughout Ohio. We also produced a CD with students' Power Point programs on it and an ABC booklet."

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD T.O.U.R.

Kozbial-Hess explained that "The purpose of the Underground Railroad T.O.U.R. was to 'tour' Underground Railroad sites -- or to find a way to tour them from the classrooms, such as through literature books, videos, and songs. Our objectives included connecting schools that are studying the topic, fostering projects about it, sharing resources, improving map skills, and incorporating literature into historical study."

The project is linked to state proficiency outcomes, she added.

Now that the Web site is up and running, Kozbial-Hess and Wenzloff hope to construct a digital "quilt" in which school communities may submit facts and photos about Underground Railroad activity in their areas. The site will also offer written accounts created by students of imaginary journeys along the UGRR.

"I think it is a good subject for kids to study because most of the states east of the Mississippi can study it from both a local standpoint and from a national standpoint," Wenzloff explained. "It is easier for kids to understand history when they can personalize it. There is not a great deal about it in most school history books -- usually only a map and a story about Harriet Tubman.

"Kids need to realize that African Americans did everything they could during slavery to escape or rebel against it," added Wenzloff. "This is an important part of our heritage that little is written about."

PRESERVING THE PAST

The combined efforts of Kozbial-Hess and her principal have raised almost $15,000 for the project. Kozbial-Hess is excited about prospects for the project this year. Now back in the classroom full time, "My students will be a part of it also. We are going to be meeting later this month to get the project started with 15 teachers in the Toledo City School District. I am preparing a notebook with lesson plans and suggestions for classroom use.

"One of the goals I have for this project is for students to become aware of the Underground Railroad," Kozbial-Hess explained. "So many sites [along the UGRR] are now being destroyed. Older people are remembering information they heard from ancestors -- so now is the time to take action.

"Another goal is for students to become friends across the district," she added. "This has happened. Students come from very diverse schools across the city to work together for a common goal. Now I want to extend that with the power of technology as students connect with others around the United States and hopefully Canada, use map skills, understand the trials and tribulations of slavery, and especially become more familiar with the technology."

USING TECHNOLOGY FROM THE PRESENT

Last year, Kozbial-Hess met Wenzloff at a Pioneering Partners meeting. Wenzloff, a consultant for the Macomb Intermediate School District in Clinton Township, Michigan, heard about her project and was eager to offer his assistance. The two began exchanging e-mail and discussing ways to expand the project's scope through the Internet. Since that time, Wenzloff has lent his technological skills to two tasks -- posting a Web site for the project and setting up a listserv for interested educators to share ideas.

"Our overall goal is to have students develop projects -- Web-based, writing, reading, plays, photographs, drawings, and more -- about the UGRR and to share them with other students via the Web," Wenzloff told Education World. "To become involved in the project, teachers can visit our Web site.

"Next, I am setting up a literature-based project in which kids will read a book about the Underground Railroad and then interview two specialists about it," he said. "The specialists will also read the book. One specialist lives in a house that was a station on the Underground Railroad, and the other is the educational specialist for the Charles Wright African American Museum in Detroit, Michigan. The interview should take place this spring."

Wenzloff is also seeking local teachers who would like to work on reports or projects on the UGRR in Michigan.

Kozbial-Hess thinks that projects such as hers are valuable classroom endeavors. "I believe that students should become aware of all history," she said. "They should understand the past and the connection it has to the present. This project is one way to break down any barriers and come together in friendship and understanding of an important event in the history of our nation."

WANT TO GET ON BOARD?

New participants from across the United States and Canada are encouraged to join in this project. To learn more, visit the The Underground Railroad T.O.U.R. (Teachers of Underground Railroad) Web site or register for the listserv. If you live in an area in which the UGRR operated, the coordinators of the project want to hear from you! However, everyone is welcome to sign up and make use of the online resources the project provides. Information gathered from participating classes will be posted to the site. All grade levels are invited to join.

Though he knows that the project has room to grow, Wenzloff sees a bright future ahead. "I really hope that by using the Web, we can encourage students and teachers to share what they are studying with each other and that we can all learn more by helping each other," he said. "It will take us a while to get this going, but it will work."

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FROM THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD T.O.U.R.

Quilts and the Underground Railroad
This third-grade social studies lesson introduces students to the hidden meanings behind blocks in "freedom quilts" used to help slaves make their way along the Underground Railroad.

Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky
A third-grade language arts lesson, this activity shares, through literature, the varying degrees of freedom experienced by slaves.

Our Virtual Underground Railroad Quilt
Created by elementary students, this site has interesting facts about the Underground Railroad and wonderful handmade artwork.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

ADDITIONAL ONLINE RESOURCES

Black History Month All Year Long
This site has enough black history resources to keep you busy for an entire year! Links to lessons are included, along with sources for folktales, the Underground Railroad, and the Amistad.

Aboard the Underground Railroad
This section of the National Park Service Web site includes a map of several Underground Railroad routes, a bibliography, and a great deal of historical information.

Walk to Canada - Tracing the Underground Railroad
Follow historian Anthony Cohen as he traces by foot one of the routes of the Underground Railroad, from Maryland to Canada. (Began May 4, 1996).

Originally published 01/31/2000
Links last updated 01/30/2007