When the Amistad Commission’s Stephanie James Harris told the fifth graders at Cranberry Pines Elementary School about Medford’s history, their eyes lit up.
As executive director of the Black history commission, Harris gave students a glimpse of the African American story in their own town.
“Everyone was really feeling very inspired,” said Cranberry Pines Principal Kristin Groark. “My staff were ready to roll. They said, ‘Can we turn this into a big project?’”
Groark agreed, and fifth grade teachers Maegen Cecchetti and Melissa Reiss got to work creating History Beneath Our Feet: The Medford History Project, a hands-on learning experience that will culminate in a community website.
The project took students on a journey through Medford’s history, including its connection to the Underground Railroad, Dr. James Still and the Medford Quakers. Students are currently creating a drone tour of the town.
“By engaging them in this really deep rooted, homegrown effort to learn about their history here in town, I think it makes a lot more of a worldly perspective,” Groark explained. “They’re starting to look at the world around them and the history of that world and how it impacts who they are today.”
The principal noted that students were especially fascinated by the realization that the Underground Railroad had stops in Medford.
“Knowing that the Underground Railroad went through was mind blowing for kids,” she explained. “They learned about it in history, but they were escaping slavery right here, on the same street that they walk today.”
Students recently participated in a Socratic circle to discuss what they had learned. Groark was excited to see the fifth graders have important, knowledgeable conversations.
“They explored deeper questions about our history and how it influences our lives now,” she noted. “What history actually happened, versus what is told in the history books. They had really deep conversations.”
Beyond history class, the projects allowed students to test their skills in reading, writing, research and technology. Groark said History Beneath Our Feet will continue to be part of the school’s curriculum for years to come.
“It was such a powerful experience for our kids,” she added.
Because of pandemic restrictions, teachers and students were feeling disconnected from the community, according to Groark. Cranberry Pines teachers worked hard on creative ways to bring the outside world in.
“Our doors and our walls have been sealed off,” Groark explained. “But what’s so fascinating is that these teachers and students are able to branch their way out and reach out to the community through the use of technology, during one of the most challenging times in our history.”
The school plans to present the finished product at a board of education meeting before the academic year ends.
“They’ll be able to see this drone walking-tour video and learn about that space through student presentations,” Groark said. “So it’s really going to be a fantastic culminating project.”