What do you mean your grandfather wasn't allowed to fly a plane even though he was an officer in the air force?" a puzzled fifth grader questioned his classmate.
"Back in the 1940's blacks weren't allowed to fly planes even though they knew how as well as white pilots."
"I don't believe that. That's ridiculous." Disbelief, rage, fear, denial, and curiosity were evident in our fifth grade students as our study of the "binary opposite" concepts of freedom and oppression challenged their life views.
When we began our fifth grade study of freedom and oppression, our goal was to help students make sense of how they themselves construct the relationship between these two domains of human experience. The students interwove social, psychological, and historical components in developing definitions of the concepts of freedom and oppression.
To structure the study, we set up the following outline of activities: choosing and reading a biography, interviewing a person whose experiences related to our studies, and writing fiction plays based on the students' gathering of true stories of oppression and dreams of freedom.
Read and Report on a Biography
All fifth graders read a biography of a historical figure who described his/her search for freedom while coping with oppression. Students chose from a wide range of personalities: Anne Frank, Jackie Robinson, Harriet Tubman, Galileo, Johann Gutenberg, as well as someone as recent as Zlata (a young girl experiencing Eastern Europe's upheavals).
First, the students wrote reports of the books they had read by creating detailed chronological descriptions of the events of the story. Then they wrote a first person narrative about a significant event of the person's life that was depicted in the book. Next, the students presented this narrative to their classmates by enacting the characters of their biographies. Some dramatic students came dressed as their characters and shared their sorrow with great passion. For example, one child wrote and acted a scene about Anne Frank's frustration and longings when birthdays had to be celebrated noiselessly, combining events of the book with her own feelings. Many of the brief scenarios resulted in teary eyes; our fifth graders were gaining empathy.
Although the themes from biographies about the human search for freedom were universal and timeless, each personality's story needed to be examined within its own historical context. As a result of this introductory activity, students began to understand the wide range of unjust experiences people endured.
Yet, when the students realized that what they were learning about "was just the way it was," they began animated discussions about how people accommodated prolonged oppression, while some individuals such as Martin Luther King decided to try to change their worlds. Students asked the question: when should someone take action or when is it better, if ever, to accept existing conditions of society?
Students studied and practiced interviewing techniques. They were given the choice of interviewing someone who had experienced significant freedom or oppression. As one would expect, most students interviewed individuals with histories of oppression. Once the students chose their interview subject, they were instructed to use encyclopedias to gain knowledge about the relevant period of history. For example, one student chose to interview a friend's grandmother who had been detained in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. The student learned about the relocation policies of the government before constructing appropriate questions. In preparation for interviewing a Holocaust survivor, another student read about German history during World War II.
After conducting their interviews, students presented their background information, interview questions/answers, and personal reactions. Spontaneous discussions comparing and contrasting distinct experiences with oppression spanned different races, time periods, and cultures.
Each child had a unique story to tell. For example, one child interviewed a Vietnamese friend who had been forced to leave her country on a raft and was separated from her family for many years. Another child interviewed her mother, who had experienced discrimination at a men's corporate lunch club. The students were amazed at how many ways people chose to oppress others. Their fifth grade obsession with "fairness and justice" gained more dimension.
As the discussion continued, the students began to see that any life could fit on the continuum between complete freedom and complete oppression. Early in the study, the students viewed the subjects from their own points of view. Through the study, they began to understand the complexity of people's roles within their culture; when this happened, their increased empathy became evident. They began to talk about the experiences within their own cultural and historical context. From disbelief and anger, the students moved to an understanding of both the difficulty in effecting change and the prevailing strength of the human spirit.
Students broke up into small groups and decided to focus on one member's interview. Based on their knowledge and understanding from reading, interviewing, and discussing, students wrote one act historical-fiction plays about people who suffered oppression. In some instances, the play followed the life of the person interviewed, while in other cases, the students used the information of the interview as a springboard for their creative scenarios.
In writing the plays, the students had opportunities for group work: brainstorming, writing at the computer with a partner, peer criticism, and editing. For the finale, the students had a unique learning experience; they directed their music, drama, and social studies teachers in acting out the student-written plays. That was fun!
The teachers enjoyed coming together from various disciplines to work on the students' project. The students' observations of the teachers' cooperation, spontaneity, and learning resulted in the students' realization that learning is an ongoing process. When teachers learn along with their students, the possibility for creative problem solving and risk taking is broadened.
For both students and teachers, this was a long and rewarding process. Although the teachers were guiding and prompting throughout the unit, the students were in control of the content, direction, and depth of study. When the teachers acted out the students' writing exactly as it had been written, they confirmed the students' feeling of ownership.
In this unit, we attempted to expand our students' knowledge using lessons from the past in a "learning by doing" format. The unit provided an opportunity to practice and apply reading and writing for authentic purposes, student-led acquisition of new knowledge about different historical periods, an educational environment that brought the disciplines together for a meaningful project, and group work.
This thematic approach to history encouraged an understanding of concepts beyond rote memorization of chronological events. The themes extended to the students' lives and values.
Our fifth graders showed an astonishing capacity both to understand the issues of freedom and oppression and to apply this understanding to their own behavior. Students related to their subjects with empathy and insight, insisting, "I would not behave in such a cruel way," or "I'm not going to stand by and watch someone get picked on at recess anymore." We hope this year-long study will result in our students' continued steps toward recognition of the importance of every individual's freedom.
Dewey, John. The Child and The Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1902.Egan, Kieran. Primary Understanding. New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc., 1988.
Harriett B. Cholden is a fifth grade teacher at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago. Her articles have appeared in a variety of professional and popular journals. Among the subjects she has dealt with as a writer, lecturer, and consultant are the merits of interdisciplinary education and issues of parental intervention in children's homework.
Barbara Giertz Hunt is a fifth grade teacher and curriculum coordinator at Francis W. Parker School who has designed and implemented a variety of interdisciplinary projects. She is also a professional musician with a special interest in Renaissance music.