Mountain Shadows students look to educate school about prominent Black women

  • Elsa Hanchett and Olivia Cutler have converted what was an unused shed near their outdoor classroom at Mountain Shadows into a spot where fellow students can stop by during recess and learn about important Black women. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/22/2021 5:13:30 PM

Students at Mountain Shadows School in Dublin recently got the opportunity to learn all about Harriet Tubman. They learned how she was born into slavery before escaping to freedom and becoming one the most well known conductors on the Underground Railroad and how she risked her life to lead hundreds of family members and other slaves to freedom using the elaborate secret network of safe houses.

And while the Dublin school’s students have been getting a steady dose of knowledge throughout Black History Month, these lessons aren’t all happening in the classroom. Rather, they’re taking place in a shed and are being taught by a pair of fourth-graders.

Elsa Hanchett and Olivia Cutler have converted what was an unused wood shed and near their outdoor classroom into a spot where fellow students can stop by during recess and get a little education of important Black women.

“It was very much student-directed,” said Alison Evans, Hanchett and Cutler’s fourth-grade teacher at Mountain Shadows. “They really took it and ran with it and as a school, we really encourage any student-directed learning.”

It started with Tubman, as the two 9-year-olds spent two weeks passing along the knowledge they had learned from hours of research – all done on their own, away from school. Gina Cutler, Olivia’s mom, said she was a bit surprised when on a Friday afternoon off from school she found her daughter surfing the internet for all she could find out about Tubman.

“I’m just assuming she’s on YouTube,” Gina said. “But instead she had written up a page-and-a-half essay.”

“What we thought was interesting about her was how brave she was and how she just really wanted to help others,” Hanchett said.

Did you know that her real name was Araminta Harriet Ross and earned the nickname Minty? How about the fact she was born into slavery and was forced to work at the age of five? What about how she operated a wash house and was also a nurse? Well, Hanchett and Cutler learned that and made sure their students – and parents – did too.

“I had heard about Harriet Tubman, but I didn’t know much about her,” Hanchett said.

Teaching is a big part of what they do and as for the hope: “That these facts will hopefully just spread,” Hanchett said. “Some of the stuff we are talking about they don’t know about.” That includes some of the school’s teachers.

“Seeing their reaction and how inspired they are and the change they want to create, is really inspiring,” Evans said. “It really gives you hope for the future. Even at this age, where they feel they can have an impact. It’s so important to have those moments of hope right now.”

Together they devised a plan to provide as much information to their fellow students and Mountain Shadows teachers as they could. They used articles, books and the internet to research Tubman. From there, they put up quotes and printed out photos to showcase in the shed, even creating a uniquely painted plywood barrier in the doorway they can stand behind. They have books and articles displayed on shelves where anyone can come and visit while they are set up during recess. There’s a Black Lives Matter poster hanging about the doorway.

“Their classmates are all coming up with thoughtful questions,” Evans said. “It has been such a positive for the whole class.”

They have held two storywalks, while usually they offer visitors the chance to ask questions or listen while they read off what they’ve learned. One day, the entire seventh grade class came down for a lesson.

“When she first told me about it, I was like ‘oh that’s neat,’” said Roz Hanchett, Elsa’s mom. “Then I realized what they were doing and it’s great they’re doing this on their own.”

The idea came after a series of impactful moments for Hanchett. She attended a number of the vigils in Peterborough and has spoken with her mom on many occasions about racial injustice. Being a part of such a powerful movement inspired Elsa to learn more about the history of the fight for racial equality and its prominent figures.

Olivia said she saw some of the vigils this summer and it led to a lot of questions. 

A Black Lives Matter sign was stolen from the Hanchett’s family home in Peterborough, so in response Hanchett asked if she could hang up some BLM signs around school. That was just the beginning of her interest in involving other Mountain Shadows students in her newly formed passion. And she found someone just as excited about it in Cutler.

As Hanchett put it “I had the general idea but (Olivia) had many other great ideas.”

They spent time figuring out how they wanted the shed to look, what kind of facts they wanted to learn and how they would involve others. Hanchett said Tubman was the first person who popped into her head. It’s believed that her Peterborough home was once part of the Underground Railroad and with Tubman’s role in freeing slaves, she seemed like the perfect woman to start with. She watched the film “Harriet” with her mom and the research took off from there.

“She’s always been a very good writer and reader and she loves telling stories, so it all lends itself to those natural qualities of being a leader,” Roz said.

They typically occupy the shed most days during afternoon recess for about a half hour, getting visitors from their class and teachers from around the school.

“The reason is to share that Black lives do matter,” Olivia said.

Hanchett and Cutler are currently researching Michelle Obama, the former first lady of the United States, and plan to unveil what they’ve learned after school vacation. Also on the list of upcoming Black women to highlight is activist Ruby Bridges.

“It’s been great, but I don’t know how to describe the feeling,” Olivia said. “But if we know that Black lives do mean something, then we can share that.”

For Gina, it has been fulfilling to watch her daughter take on this kind of project.

“She’s learned a lot about social injustice and it sparked a passion in her,” Gina said. “It’s really amazing she has such a passion for equal rights. It gives me hope for the future.”

Evans said what she’s enjoyed the most is watching it happen organically.

“They’re natural teachers, so it’s fun to be on the other side,” Evans said. “I try to ask questions that get them thinking more deeply about it.”


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