Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Making the Most of Our Time

Time is a history teacher’s constant enemy. We attempt to teach a sequence of events through time in an ever diminishing amount of time. We attempt to coax students to understand various time periods when most can’t make sense of their present. While I watch the clock to see how much time I have left to teach my young charges they are watching the clock for a different take on “time remaining.”

To combat my nemesis I look for opportunities to fit in as many standards as I can whether they be American History or Language Arts. Occaisionally a thousand points of light known as the Georgia Curriculum Standards blur into one strong beam of knowledge.

This week students have been reading a story in Language Arts called A Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting. The story concerns a group of orphans from New York City that travel across the Midwest in order to give farming and small town families a chance at adoption.

The story is a real tear-jerker as some folks inspect the orphans as if they were new tractors or horses to purchase while it is obvious other folks truly want to adopt a daughter or a son. Students picked up on the slavery imagery real quick as some of the adult characters made comments regarding the size of the larger boys and would reach out to feel their muscles through their coat sleeves. My students were introduced to the word humiliation, and once we begin talking about the Portuguese, African kings, and the beginnings of African slavery in a few weeks students will have an experience, a feeling I can have them pull out of their emotional data bank.

Of course, many of the children that were adopted in this way had wonderful families and grew up very happy. The main character in our story is placed with a couple that my students decided were going to be nice to her. While doing some research for myself I found a website for a gentleman who travelled on the orphan trains himself in the early 1900s. Though our story is set in 1878 I plan on emailing this gentleman to ask if he would be willing to receive some questions from my students regarding the trains. You can view his site here. By completing an activity such as this students would be crafting their own questions regarding a piece of literature, composing and sending an email, and evaluating a response with a real-life participant in history.

One of our main reading strategies with this piece of literature was to practice sequence and to review setting. Now how could we describe setting without getting into the reasons why the orphans were on the train in the first place? Yes, an opportunity for history to shine!

I spoke about the time period the orphan trains travelled across the country. I discussed the large numbers of immigrants that flocked to the United States during this time period and had students come up with possible reasons why they might be willing to leave their homes to go to another land. Students then discovered the huge problems that the large influx of people caused in places like New York City…..possible reasons why a parent would desert or give up their child hoping they were giving them an opportunity for a better life. We were also able to address the differences in time period. I asked students, “Would we be able to allow orphan trains to travel across the United States today?” Many students were able to see the difference. Today, we have more regulations, more scrutiny, more stop-gaps for safety.

Thank goodness we do live in a different time. Unfortunately, we still have children who are neglected and uncared for. Time has changed the circumstances, but not the effect.

Here is another site concerning the orphan trains.

UPDATE----I found a great connection between the orphan trains, a governor, and a U.S. President. Want to know more? Visit my post at the American President's Blog here.


Anonymous said...

What a great topic to study. I never learned about that period of US history, nor the Kindertransport of WWII.

I read a great book last year called RODZINA by Karen Cushman. It is about the same kind of orphan trains, only they were out of Chicago. It is a chapter book, aimed mostly at 5th grade and up, but it might be a great book for read aloud or individual learning.

EHT said...

I didn't learn of these events either while I was in school. Your book suggestion sounds interesting. Actually if you google "orphan trains" there is quite a bit of literature out there for use in the classroom.