How I Teach the Amistad

I use the story of the Amistad as the core of a unit on forced immigration, part of our 4th graders’ year-long study of immigration. By then the children have done oral histories of recent immigrants to America, visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Museum of Chinese in America; done an Ellis Island simulation; explored Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, and deepened their understanding of historic immigration to America through a wide variety of books, film, websites, and other media.

Before Teaching

Prior to beginning our study of forced immigration I contact the parents so they are very aware of what we will be doing and urge them to get in touch with me immediately if their child expresses any distress about what we are studying. Forced immigration is a very harsh topic and is understandably disturbing. I think it is important to be very aware of each child’s place developmentally — some in the class may be very ready to consider some of the harder situations, but others may not. I want to be very aware of how each is processing the information in a way that is age-appropriate.  That is, this topic will come up again as they go on in school and so it is important to present it in a way they can manage, not give them nightmares.

Introduction to Forced Immigration

I begin by asking the children to share what they know while also being sensitive to their classmates. All year I work on creating a caring community of learners so they are invariably considerate and sensitive as they begin this conversation. While some are already knowledgeable and all have earlier experiences learning about the Underground Railroad and other stories of resistance, for quite a few it is shocking  to learn that people were taken so brutally against their will from Africa.  We consider the following questions, ones we use throughout our studies of immigration, and quickly agree that the answers will be very different from those for those we’ve learned about already.

  • Why do people immigrate to America?
  • What are their journeys like?
  • What are their initial impressions of America?
  • How are they treated by those who came before?
  • In what ways do they assimilate?
  • What parts of their culture do they keep?

Next, to give a sense of how the past connects to the present I read Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way and then show them a map which first shows the original ethnic groups in Africa and then another one with countries that were established largely because of colonization.

I also read aloud  I Lost My Tooth in Africa, to give a sense of what one part of that continent is like today, as seen through a child their own age.

Introducing the Amistad Affair and Sierra Leone

I tell the children that the bulk of our study will be a focus on the remarkable story of one group of captives from Sierra Leone, the country in West Africa where I lived for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Our first look at it is via Veronica Chamber’s picture book  Amistad Rising.  I also let them know that the Amistad captives came from what is now Sierra Leone, that the country was started by former captives, and today many African Americans are discovering by testing their DNA that their ancestors came from this part of Africa.

Bunce Island

At some point I do a lesson on this slave fort off the coast of Sierra Leone, one that is unique among the many that were used to house people before they were taken to the Americas. While most people were taken to the Caribbean (say Cuba like those on the Amistad) from Africa and only later brought to the United States, many of those taken from Bunce Island were actually brought directly to the United States.  My own blog post about visiting Bunce Island is here.

We explore Bunce Island and its importance through the Bunce Island Virtual Archaeology Project Website.  In particular we look at the following parts of the site:

Amazing Grace

This famous hymn was written by John Newton, someone who spent the early part of his life as a slave trader around Sierra Leone, often buying and selling slaves at Bunce Island. He eventually became a minister and turning against slavery, worked with others to abolish it in all of Britain. His pamphlet, “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” is both a record of the horrors of this and an argument against it. In 1807, the year of Newton’s death, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act, but slavery persisted far longer elsewhere. You can listen to the song and see the lyrics in many languages here.

Forced Immigration Poetry

After experiencing a variety of poems about forced immigration and the Amistad, the children write their own. (More about the poems and lessons I do here.) Some of the books I use:

Africa is My Home: A Child of the Amistad

We culminate our study of the Amistad with a look at Africa is My Home.  I used to have the children read a version I’d placed on a private blog. Now they will be reading the actual book!  They have responded to it in conversation and by writing to me about it. I share with them my long process of writing the book, materials that I have from my time in Sierra Leone, and sometimes my editor comes to talk with them as well. Needless to say it has been a very special experience. Other classes have read the book too and have written to me their responses to it.

The Gullah

The Gullah are a community of descendants of enslaved people who, most likely, came from what is now Sierra Leone.  We look at how they are still similar to those people across the sea from them and how they maintained their culture under such difficult conditions.  Some of what we do:

  • Listening as I read the picture book, Circle Unbroken, written by Margot Theis Raven with illustrations by E. B. Lewis.
  • View a presentation about the Gullah and Sierra Leone.
  • Explore Gullah Net.

The African Burial Ground

We end the study with a visit to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.



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