My Fund For Teachers Fellowship

Three years ago I was in Poland, hugging an older women I didn’t know and could hardly understand, moments after she told me the story of her father harboring Jews during the Nazi occupation. We both began to cry as she shared the heartbreak of his being discovered and abandoning his charges in the woods.  The woman lived in the village of Sniadowo – the place my grandmother, of blessed memory, was born.

Why did I go to a place that harbors so much pain for Jewish families like mine?

The most immediate reason I made that 2012 trip with my partner and her cousins was to bear witness to the murder of her family by the Nazis 70 years earlier in the tiny Polish village of Wielopole – and to visit the place where my grandmother lived before coming to the U.S.

But, it recently occurred to me that in addition to that reason, part of why I went to Poland had to do with me being a teacher. Teaching is more than a job for me. The need and desire to help adolescents make sense of the world has become a key part of my identity.

One reason I visited Poland, and steeped myself in the history and landmarks of the Holocaust, was to help me bring its existential issues into my middle school classroom.

As 7th and 8th graders, my students are differentiating from their parents and developing their own sense of self.  As such, they are grappling with deep and important questions about injustice and morality:  Why do people do violent and hateful things?  Why do some people take enormous personal risks to act as allies? What can the choices other people have made teach us about the world, ourselves and each other? The Holocaust was a devastating world event with personal meaning to me that raises powerful, challenging questions about morality and choices for all of us.

An Educational Road Trip

American history has its own painful past, which raises similarly challenging questions.

This summer I will be taking another journey across a landscape with a history of violence, cruelty and pain. Fund For Teachers has awarded me a travel fellowship to study U.S. slavery and the Underground Railroad.

Travel is always an opportunity to reflect on my life and my life’s work. But during this adventure, my students will be top of mind as my partner and I take an “educational road trip” to visit Underground Railroad-related landmarks and cultural institutions in Ohio, Michigan, Ontario and New York.

While the Underground Railroad began in the south, we are concentrating on the Northern Underground Railroad after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This congressional act changed the “rules” of slavery by essentially requiring enslaved people to reach the Canadian border to be free.  Before 1850, runaways were free once they entered a free state – although there was still a risk of being kidnapped into slavery.

One of the places I am most excited to visit is the Ohio River Valley, since it is the setting of North By Night, one of the novels I will read with my students next year. With my new Lumix G6 mirrorless digital camera in hand, I plan to photograph the area and bring back pictures that my 8th graders will use when they adapt the novel into a film and create documentaries about the period.  I will enjoy watching my students culling through my photographs, interpreting and assessing them to find the right background or image for a point they are trying to make, or working to solve a technical problem.

More importantly, I am looking forward to the opportunity to help them grapple with some of the big questions of morality, oppression and resistance. I will share some some of the information I will have learned, and the stories I will have heard from the people I will speak with on this trip. I look forward to using these resources to enrich, challenge and deepen my students’ thinking.

The opportunity to ponder some of life’s big questions led me to Poland in 2012.  And, I expect this Fund For Teachers journey will spark more questions. It will help me and my students make connections across time and space, as we continue to wrestle with the essential challenges of being human.

Links to all Underground Railroad blog posts:

  1. Kicking Off My Fund For Teachers Fellowship (This Post)
  2. Cincinnati’s Freedom Center
  3. Underground Railroad, Slavery and the Erasure of Memory in Flushing, Ohio
  4. Unexpected Twist on an Ohio River cruise
  5. Why Ripley Ohio Moves Me
  6. A History Hater Teaches History


Like this post? Want to follow my trip? How about subscribing to my blog?  You’ll get an email each time I write a new post.



  • Oz Teitelbaum

    Reply Reply June 9, 2015

    What a beautifully written kick-off blog to your journey exploring Northern Underground Railroad. I look forward to reading your entries along the way and experiencing it through your words.

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply June 9, 2015

      Thanks for the positive words, Ozer. Looking forward to the journey, and all the big ideas I hope it generates.

  • Michael Taylor, NBCT

    Reply Reply June 9, 2015

    I am “stoked” by this idea of traveling to historical sights and transforming the visit into present day reality and all the issues that we still grapple with…sign me up! In fact, can I carry your luggage for one of these trips?
    I am definitely onboard!

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply June 9, 2015

      Thanks for the comment, Michael, and the positive feedback. You can do this, too. Fund For Teachers applications are due in January 2016. I bet you have a bunch of ideas for deepening your pedagogy through travel!

  • Denise Tarr

    Reply Reply June 12, 2015

    This is awesome Melissa! I am so excited to hear about your journeys and so inspired by you! Congratulations on the fellowship and I look forward to reading more 🙂

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply June 12, 2015

      Thanks Denise. I think it was you who inspired me, given your success at travel PD. Thanks for subscribing to the blog.

  • Prisca Gloor

    Reply Reply July 18, 2015

    I’m impressed by your will power to go beyond “just teaching”. Your students are fortunate to have you and that film project sounds fascinating. I am so moved by your posts and I can even start to imagine the suffering of the slaves. It has to be brought into the light! Thank you for doing this

    • Melissa

      Reply Reply July 27, 2015

      Wow, Prisca, I really appreciate you taking the time to read the blog. thanks for such positive comments!

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