Walking through the halls of Ryan Elementary STEAM School on the evening of May 3 was a bit like a journey back in time. As you make your way down the corridors, you are transported back to the colonial days, when slavery was an integral part of industry here in the Americas.
“The gym is going to be West Africa, the hallway will be the middle passage - like on the ship, and the library is going to be Colonel America, where they had to do the labor and the work,” explained Ryan Elementary fifth-grader Cate Keenan.
The school was packed with parents and community members during the event.
“We had a great turnout. All the kids were here, all their families were here. People from the community were here,” said Ryan Elementary Teacher Molly Hayes. “ I think people are excited that we are talking about this tough stuff, that kids at 10 and 11 [years old] are able to think about… this time in history critically and really understand why our country is the way it is today.”
This is the second year that Ryan fifth-graders have learned about the Atlantic Slave Trade, through lessons crafted by the Boulder Valley School District teachers of AT LAST and the support of Impact on Education.
“It stands for Alliance for Teaching the Legacies of the Atlantic Slave Trade,” said Peter Wood, a former Duke University Professor who now volunteers to help with the AT LAST program. “This was a small group of teachers that came together and all agreed that there was not enough good strong African American history in the curriculum, even though it is called for in the outlines for teaching in Colorado.”
Over the course of the year, students learn the history of slavery, exploring everything from the economic and social reasons behind the practice to the brutal experiences endured by the slaves.
“I wanted to know what it was really like to be cramped underneath a ship and being able to see water for the very first time and being on this new land,” said Ryan fifth-grader Niema Iarussi. “I think that was very powerful. I mean, they had never been away from their homes, but to be taken away from their family and be taken away from their home -- that would be a little bit scary for me, if I had been through that.”
“So many of these kids hadn’t heard hardly anything about this time in history. Quite frankly they were shocked and upset by it. Learning about the realities and the brutality of what these 12.5 million people who were enslaved had to go through,” Hayes said.
During the evening, students shared narratives they had written from the perspective of the enslaved Africans.
“They use all of their knowledge from class, the research that we do, the dilemma lesson that they participate in to understand the harsh choices and harsh realities they were faced with. They use all of those things in order to plan for and write a narrative and create this character and essentially give a voice to the voiceless,” Hayes said.
“I’m going to read my narrative. It is titled Afua, which is the name of my character,” Iarussi said. “She was playing in the swaying grasses, but her mother told her not to go too far. She wandered too far and she got captured.”
During the evening, parts of the school are adorned with crafts created by the kids, which are inspired by West African culture. Leading up to the event, the students had the opportunity to learn how to make Kente clothes, shekeres and baskets. They also learned about the region’s traditional dances, drumming and food, sharing it with the crowd on that Thursday evening.
The entire goal of the effort is to empower students to address the lasting effects of the Atlantic Slave Trade, including lingering impacts on race relations, not to mention stopping slavery, which continues in other parts of the world.
“We really want to cultivate kids who want to go out into the world and want to make it a better place. This is a perfect time in history for them to learn from, so we don’t make the same mistakes that we have made in the past. So we can go out stand up in what they believe in and stand up for social injustices they see in the world,” Hayes said. “When I entered this profession, I think my number one goal was to make a difference. I really do feel that through this project we are leaving them better off than they came to us and we are inspiring them to go off into the world and make change and to be a positive force.”
The AT LAST curriculum is currently taught at Ryan Elementary, Aspen Creek K-8, Nevin Platt Middle and Boulder High School. For more information go to Impact on Education’s website at: