Amistad Study Helps Teen 'Get Real' about Slavery

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Byline: Kendra L. Williams Daily Herald Staff Writer

Pupils at Robert Frost Junior High School will be shackled together today in an attempt to understand what it must have been like to be slaves.

On Monday, the Schaumburg school's 140 eighth-graders will cram themselves into a replica of "La Amistad," the Spanish ship that brought men, women and children from Africa across the Atlantic in 1839 for sale into slavery.

"I think I speak for all of us - my classmates and I - when I say it's a valuable thing," said Tom Demos, 14, of Schaumburg. "We're learning about the motivation for freedom, keeping your hopes up. It should be known the suffering they went through."

The unit, designed by a team of math, science, social studies and language arts teachers, began last week and is stretching through Jan. 8, when the group will see the Lyric Opera's performance of "Amistad."

Lessons include discussions about the morality of slavery, reading novels about the Amistad rebellion, math exercises exploring how to build a slave ship from a scale model and science lessons about navigation.

Pupils also are keeping journals revealing how they would feel to be taken from their communities and degraded by people called "master."

"In social studies, we've sort of done the grunt work," said teacher Lynn Brand. "We've taught them about slavery and abolitionists. ... What's incredible about Amistad is that they'll learn it graphically. It's a different kind of violence. This is accurate. You should know what human beings are capable of when racism takes over."

The Middle Passage - the route slave traders took by boat from Africa's west coast to the New World - is not something pupils have learned a lot about in the past, said Greg Vogel, a language arts teacher who also works as a lecturer for the Lyric Opera. Teachers tend to present more about the "American" side of slavery - the auctions, the plantations, the abolitionists, the abuse, the Civil War. Now, teachers are showing students how the Middle Passage is much like today's illegal drug trade.

"Amistad" is the story of Joseph Cirque, a slave who leads a rebellion on a Spanish slave ship. After killing the captain, Cirque orders the navigator to sail to West Africa but the navigator instead pilots the boat in secret to Long Island. The slaves stay in New York through a lengthy extradition trial, and their case lands in the United States Supreme Court, where they are defended by John Quincy Adams and eventually freed.

Though the Frost teachers decided to create their "Amistad" unit based on the Lyric Opera's Jan. …