One hundred seventy-one Marathon sixth- and eighth-grade students had an opportunity to explore an often under-addressed topic in American history when they studied the Civil War era in their social studies class this spring. Jan Dorl and Jeanette Maresma, sixth- and eighth-grade social studies teachers, respectively, took the opportunity to guide their students through the complicated topics related to slavery and freedom as part of a U.S. history research project.

The curriculum involved multiple formats to engage students and accommodate different interests, age groups, and learning styles. After initial classroom instruction and background information, the students watched films geared toward their grade level to gain an up-close look at the lives and experiences of the enslaved persons. Eighth graders watched the educational version of the film “12 Years a Slave” based on the life of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery. Sixth graders viewed “Race to Freedom,” a story of the perils of escape and the role of the Underground Railroad as a path to freedom. The final project involved student groups working together on research and reporting combined with instruction in graphic design and software to produce chapters for a student-created booklet related to the unit.

Supplementary enrichment opportunities brought elements of realism to the students. Rev. Larry White, minister at Marathon’s St. Paul AME Church, spoke of his experiences as a youth under Jim Crow laws in South Carolina and also advised the student audience on how to deal with hurtful comments and other questions that arose after the films. Civil War artifact collector Pat Baragwanath treated the students to a display of Civil War swords and an original of “The Union is Dissolved” broadside, the first Confederate publication as it went to press 15 minutes after the secession ordinance was passed in South Carolina, the first state to secede. The capstone activity was a live, on-stage presentation of “Civil War Plays,” three monologues based on writings of persons who were affected by the Civil War, brought to Marathon Middle School students by Fringe Theater Key West. Marathon High graduate Javier Reyes (and Keys Weekly art director) was chosen as the graphic designer to provide instruction to the students through the Council’s Artists in Schools grant program.

Graphic artist Javier Reyes, left, shows sixth graders Alex Lewis and Alejandro Nodarse how to work on page design as part of their project for the Slavery and Freedom unit in U.S. history class. KATHY LANCASTER/Contributed

“Individual students mentioned particular aspects of the unit that they enjoyed and also indicated an understanding of social consciousness about this tragic part of American history,” Maresma said. “They know that even though most Americans did not own slaves, slavery was the primary experience of millions of Americans. The students learned about the human side of slavery, that it’s a reality that can be talked about, and how to address issues with respect for each other.”

One eighth grader summarized his experience well when he wrote, “(The booklet project) was a lot of fun and we all learned a little something about our past.”

For more information, contact school librarian and project coordinator Kathy Lancaster at Marathon High School, [email protected].

—By Kathy Lancaster

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