By Kelly Harris
They call me, “The Book Lady.”
I develop and lead literacy activities for the Maturing Champions in Treme’ program sponsored by Urban Strategies. Every Thursday I read a story, facilitate a community conversation and if there is time, we do a hands-on activity. It provides me with a change of pace from being a stay-at-home-mom, plus I consider myself a literacy advocate. Thursday’s book was Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad By Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. An hour before class, Nelson Mandela died.
It was a teachable moment I didn’t want to pass up. “Raise your hand if you know who Nelson Mandela is,” I said before reading the book. I didn’t see many hands respond. I explained to the 4th and 5th graders that he was sort of like South Africa’s Martin Luther King, Jr. He wasn’t killed, but he went to jail for 27 years because he wanted racial unity in his country.
Before I opened the book, one boy said, “I know who that is. It’s Henry “Box” Brown. He mailed himself to Philadelphia.” I began reading the book, holding it high for all to see. Another student asked, “Was he like Harriet Tubman?” Others wondered aloud if Henry would get caught. The students asked thoughtful questions and even debated the best time for a slave to escape. I read the book with a large box beside me to illustrate how difficult it was for Henry Brown and slaves to escape. At the end I had students stand in a line with the endpoints being Slavery and Freedom. I whispered a code in the ear of one student who had to pass it along to the next and so forth until the last student was free.
I was nervous about the students’ ability to navigate such a heavy topic as slavery, but they exceeded my expectations. Yesterday, I was proud of all the students and have faith New Orleans’ future looks bright.
For info about the Maturing Champions Program contact: Lisa Green-Derry, Education Director, Lisa.GreenDerry@urbanstrategiesinc.org, 504.894.6626