Nature's Classroom



    Statement Regarding Underground Railroad Activity  


For over 41 years Nature’s Classroom has proudly provided quality educational experiences to schools and communities throughout New England and New York. We design curriculum-based programming that coordinates with classroom learning. Nature’s Classroom welcomes and encourages evaluation and feedback on all of our educational activities. Every week dozens of school teachers, administrators and parents and hundreds of students evaluate the classes which they have observed or taken part in. Their comments, opinions and suggestions continuously make us better able to serve our visiting school communities.

The Underground Railroad activity was first offered about 20 years ago. It is one of hundreds of activities that schools can choose to do, or not do, based on their academic goals. Almost 200 schools see it as a valuable extension of their classroom lessons, and request it as one of their many activities. Other schools do not.

At Nature’s Classroom we value diversity and inclusiveness and we strive towards a better understanding of each other. Many of our activities encourage teamwork, working together to build bridges both literally and figuratively. The Underground Railroad activity is no exception.

During the Underground Railroad activity, we ask students to step into the role of an enslaved African trying to escape on the Underground Railroad. Teachers, administrators, and parents from the students’ school act as conductors. They guide groups of students on a walk through the woods. During the journey, the group meets and interacts with Nature’s Classroom teachers playing a variety of different characters. Some teachers represent abolitionists, giving the students a place to rest, food to eat, or hints or tips to travel safely. Some teachers represent bounty hunters, patrollers, or a sheriff, people looking for runaway slaves. This activity includes preparation before the journey and debrief after the journey. Our goal is to introduce students to some of the complexities and difficulties surrounding slavery, understand the courage it took to run, the courage it took to assist those running, and to draw connections between discrimination and prejudice then and discrimination and prejudice today.

In August 2013 Nature’s Classroom first learned that a complaint was filed with the Department of Education regarding the Underground Railroad activity. No details about the complaint were released at that time. Nature’s Classroom began an evaluation of this particular activity. We reached out to teachers and administrators in the almost 200 schools that chose to do the Underground Railroad program last year. We reached out to current and former Nature’s Classroom staff. We carefully reviewed the general feedback provided by the Connecticut Department of Education. We revised the program’s goals and objectives. We redesigned aspects of the Underground Railroad program to better fit the new goals and objectives. And we put in place a long-term plan to reevaluate the design of the entire program within a year. We informed the schools that participate in this program of upcoming changes.

When we finally learned the details of the complaint, from media sources, we were shocked to hear some of the comments included in the complaint. Nature’s Classroom does not condone the use of the n-word. We would have taken immediate disciplinary action, including dismissal, had we known of this concern. We began an investigation into the specific complaints as soon as we heard them. We can share the following information:

  • This school chose to do the Underground Railroad activity, as they have chosen to do for over 5 years.

  • Students are always able to remove themselves from the activity, or choose not to participate in the activity.

  • Students were never chased through the woods. They were, however, led walking through the woods by teachers from their school that acted as conductors. These conductors supervised the students. They supervised the student’s interactions with Nature’s Classroom teachers.

  • The teachers from the school that acted as conductors had the following feedback on the program: “We had a very positive experience with [the] Underground Railroad.” They did not bring up any concerns or mention any behavior as inappropriate.

  • During staff training, Nature’s Classroom teachers have conversations about appropriate and inappropriate language during this activity. This particular staff had a very specific conversation about never using the n-word.

  • No Nature’s Classroom teacher that was present that night, that we have been able to question so far, reports using or hearing the use of the n-word at any point during their careers as Nature’s Classroom teachers.

If this complaint does turn out to be valid, we offer our sincerest apologies for the comments made. Our intention is to empower students to be positive leaders in the face of discrimination, prejudice and bullying in their own lives today. The reaction of this particular child and her family are clearly not in line with our goals for the activity, and we are deeply sorry that this was their experience.

Dr. John G. Santos

Executive Director

Nature’s Classroom







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