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How a Grandparent’s Great Idea Helped Shape the Fourth Grade Curriculum

Sonja Johansson is the grandmother of BFS fourth grader Toby and first grader Lena.  In the fall she sent Lower School Fourth Grade Head Teacher Bea Bartolotta the book Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, a Newbury Award-winning and Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Honored children’s picture book in hopes she might find a way to use it in class.

The well-researched book makes use of original slave auction and plantation estate documents to bring to life a poignant work about a time when in our history when African-Americans were viewed as commodities to be callously bought and sold, and their struggle to maintain humanity and an innate sense of value in such a horrific situation. Bryan’s visionary and iconoclastic work is known for breaking new ground in children’s literature.

Bea was so moved by the book that she did indeed build it into the fourth grade curriculum, using it as the culminating activity in the students’ Slavery in New Amsterdam unit.  “We read about enslaved people in New Amsterdam,” explained Bea, “in particular the stories of Dorothy Creole and Groot Manuel de Garrett, in order to get a sense of who they were and their role in the colony. We then examined some primary source documents; specifically, a petition that the first 11 slaves submitted to the Dutch West India Company requesting their freedom, and the decision to grant them ‘half-freedom.'”

Students also visited the historic African Burial Ground Museum and Monument in Lower Manhattan.  “The kids were able to truly get a sense of how enslaved people were able to keep their culture alive through all that they faced,” said Bea.  “The readings, primary source documents and trip are all intended to have them come away with a genuine understanding of how little is known about who these enslaved Africans really were and how their individual identities and culture were not considered, or documented, by the Dutch and later, the English. This book was an absolutely perfect, if fictional, example of an author trying to provide a meaningful story of what these people’s lives were like under slavery, but more importantly, what their lives and dreams were before they were taken from their homeland.”

Students also read the Author’s Note together followed by a class discussion. “We then assigned partners to read about a particular person.  Students were not provided with the illustrations in the book,” said Bea.  “After reading, they were given copies of the portraits, with the background removed, and asked to illustrate that person’s ‘dreams.’ We also intentionally included their given names and their meanings.”