Fountain Elementary presents a musical, educational lesson for Black History Month

By: Brendan Losinski | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published March 4, 2019

  William Harrison led a reading and singalong of the book  “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” by Jeanette Winter, at Fountain Elementary on Feb. 26.

William Harrison led a reading and singalong of the book “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” by Jeanette Winter, at Fountain Elementary on Feb. 26.

Photo provided by Joe Genest

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ROSEVILLE — The students at Fountain Elementary School in Roseville got an engaging and musical lesson on the Underground Railroad at a special program Feb. 26 that helped celebrate Black History Month.

The kids were visited by Detroit resident William Harrison. Harrison knows some of the staff at Fountain Elementary from St. Pio of Pietrelcina Catholic Church in Roseville, where he works as the music director. The school invited him to lead a program to teach the students in a way that the students would find especially interesting.

“This was one of the first Black History Month programs we’ve had in the last few years,” said Fountain Principal Brandon Komarowski. “Every teacher here is responsible for doing a project on Black History Month … but to hear about the topic from an outside source helps the student understand it and helps make it all real. Anytime you can present something in a different way to the kids helps.”

Inspired by programs like PBS’s “Reading Rainbow,” Harrison led the students in reading “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” by Jeanette Winter, and a singalong.

“I picked this book because I read it when I was a kid,” he explained. “It shows how the slaves made their way north by following the stars and using coded songs. … The drinking gourd in the book is the constellation the Big Dipper, which points to the North Star.”

Harrison said that talking about this area of history is good for the kids because it not only gives them a foundation for what they will learn as they continue their education, but it also helps them understand what is going on in the world around them.

“I jumped at this opportunity because this is part of American history we don’t talk about enough,” said Harrison. “I think it’s good to talk to the kids about this at such a young age, because you want to open them to that discussion. There’s a lot of issues today about racial inequality and prejudice, and I think the earlier they start learning about the reasons behind those issues, the better.”

He said “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is a great book to teach young children with because it takes many important and difficult topics and presents them in ways young children can understand. He added that the book has many valuable lessons both related and unrelated to Black History Month.

“I want them to learn about how the slaves migrated to the North and the dangerous journey that accompanied that migration,” Harrison said. “There also are other useful things to learn about, such as using the stars to navigate.”

Among the lessons Harrison wanted to impart to the students were that slavery was something that affected regular people and how learning about and empathizing with their struggles is important because the injustices visited on them could have happened to anybody.

“When the slavers brought people over, they weren’t bringing slaves; they brought over doctors and farmers and goldsmiths,” he said. “They were people like you or me, and that’s a very important lesson.”

As Harrison read the book, he invited the students to sing along with the song that the characters in the book would sing, and he would ask the students questions about what they knew and what they wanted to know.

“I learned a lot of things,” said fourth-grader Layla Steinbrink. “I learned how the Big Dipper always points to the North Star, how if someone turned back or was caught (while escaping to the North), it could be dangerous, and how (Harrison’s) great-great-grandmother was born a slave.”

“I learned about people like Harriet Tubman, who went back a bunch of times to help more people,” said her classmate, Harmoniee Ruffin. “I thought it was really neat how they used the North Star to escape.”

The school administrators said they were pleased with the results of the program.

“I’m glad (Harrison) came out,” said Komarowski. “The kids responded well. They all seemed interested and participated. They asked some good questions and gave some good responses when he asked them questions.”

The presentation came at the end of Black History Month. Harrison said he hopes the students were able to learn some important lessons about history and culture.

“(Black History Month) is important because we often don’t realize how many of our greatest discoveries and inventions were made by African-Americans,” he said. “The month isn’t just about celebrating African-Americans; it’s about celebrating history in a wider sense. I’m so glad I got the chance to be part of that for these kids.”

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