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Underground railroad module turns fourth-graders into historians

‘Beyond a set of required outcomes’

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In Winona Tinholt’s fourth-grade classroom, Blake Sherman stitches together a cyber-version of a quilt. To his left, Mikki Robinson composes a letter to “kind of like a pen pal,” she explains.

One row forward, Molly Born listens on headphones to a book recorded by one of her classmates. Next to Molly, also on headphones, a boy sings along quietly to a nearly 200-year-old song.

Every student in Tinholt’s class is studying the underground railroad, but which virtual lessons they explore and in what order is largely up to them.

All 75 fourth-graders at Wealthy Elementary are participating in an online social studies simulation. It is a partnership with the University of Michigan called Imagination Matters, developed in 2005 as part of a suite of simulations offered by the university’s Interactive Communications and Simulations group.

Over the years, thousands of students at dozens of schools have taken part in the project, said Jeff Stanzler, project co-founder.

Tinholt’s students have participated in the simulation for six years. She has been a member of U of M’s Institute for Innovation in Education since she was in graduate school there.

The web-based simulations and writing projects are mentored by university students for a worldwide network of K-12 students and teachers.

As part of the simulations, U of M students correspond with other students as the historical figures featured. For the underground railroad module, students hear from and correspond with Lucy Crosswhite, who escapes with her family. This happens via her journal shared by Matt, a boy a little older than they are, who lives in Marshall, Michigan, where the Crosswhites traveled to from Kentucky.

“It draws my students into the world of characters and makes history matter,” Tinholt said. “In order to better identify with their new friend, students are transformed into historians that dig deeper into the content so that they can better understand how to support, encourage and help solve complex problems with her. The impact on learning goes beyond a set of required outcomes.”

Tinholt has redesigned the underground railroad module for her students. “The goal is that it will become available to other classrooms,” she said. “I’d love to be able to have high school students writing to them.”


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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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