Current Events in Education

“Why haven’t I learned that Harriet Tubman fought in the civil war?”

On a cold day in central New York, I had the fantastic opportunity to take 26 students to tour the Harriet Tubman National Park, located in Auburn, NY. After an enlightening hour, we loaded onto the yellow submarine (aka the school bus) and watched the movie Harriet at the local Movie Tavern.  
By the end of the day, with our minds bursting with new paradigms, our focus for our upcoming black history celebration in February cemented. More importantly, as members of a mostly female and predominantly African-American high school step team, the students related to her story on many levels.   
From our time at the Tubman Home and our viewing of the movie, we realized that there are many reasons to call Harriet Tubman a true American hero. Moreover, the in-depth teaching of this historical figure is necessary. Although everyone knows her name, her story often reduced to her role of “conducting” on the underground railroad, is incredibly more nuanced and exciting.   
When we all made a bee-line for the restrooms after viewing the movie, the captain of the step-team called out to me from her stall: 
“Momma, why haven’t I learned that Harriet Tubman fought in the civil war?” 
I smiled at the intimacy of the talking while urinating and replied:  “Honey, I am a social studies teacher, and I did not know that she fought in the civil war.” 
The captain yelled:  “This is why we need to teach black history.” 
This is why we need to teach black history. Click To Tweet 
Yup, we (the adults) need to teach history, all of it, especially about remarkable minorities, like Tubman. Students need to see themselves in the enduring issues of history. In many ways, the field trip taught this small portion of the student body more than any classroom lesson. At the Tubman House, the dynamic tour director, Reverend Paul, made the story interactive by having the students hold a two-pound weight, explaining that Tubman was permanently marked for life when the object, thrown at her forehead, caused a gaping wound. The students gasped when he informed them of her frequent dizziness and spells due to that weight impacting her forehead. When the movie portrayed her fainting, I could see the students’ expressions of appreciation.  
Authentic learning is powerful.  
Reverend Paul also connected with students when he told them of Tubman’s husband doing her wrong. She returned to him two years after her escape only to find out that he married another woman, and she was pregnant with his child. The students called him a dog. When we watched the movie, there were many sounds of disapproval at that scene.  
Tubman’s most significant achievement was leading group after group of slaves from Maryland to Philadelphia, and then after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, traveling over 500 miles to reach Canada. The tour and the movie depicted that well-known fact vividly. However, her involvement in being the only female to command troops during the civil war was mindblowing. Her dedication to liberty and human rights were unwavering.  
Harriet Tubman’s life is one of a true warrior. Fittingly that is our high school’s mascot. We plan on dedicating our Black History Month Celebration to Harriet Tubman, a female fighter for human rights.
Hopefully the movie Harriet will inspire other teachers to include more information about stories that continue to shape our discussions of racism, sexism, power, and inequity.  When we know more, we teach more.  

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