Henry's Freedom Box:
A Meaningful Read Aloud
My kindergarten students and I recently shared a very meaningful read-aloud experience that I would like to share with you. I teach at a very diverse school and my class embodies students of all races and cultures.
I have been reading Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine to my class of five- and six-year-olds for three years now. I always choose to read this book right around Martin Luther King Jr. day because it is very relevant to what Dr. King was fighting for during the Civil Rights Movement. This story is based on true events relating to the underground railroad and the slave trade. I preface the book by telling students that we will be hearing a story about a special boy named Henry who didn't always have an easy life.
Prior to reading this time, we had been studying right versus wrong and standing up for what you believe is right. We had written our own I Have a Dream speeches and displayed them in the hallway. Although they are young and barely at the beginning of their educational journey, I believe kindergarten students can comprehend and understand much more than we give them credit for. I try to give my students as many authentic experiences that relate to the real world as I can. I LOVE when they ask questions, too.
On one particular day, I was reading right after lunch and I had their full attention. We briefly talked about what we had been learning, and how this might connect to our story. I wrote the words Henry's feelings on the board and told them we would come back to this to make a list about the main character in the book. As I read, I stopped to ask them questions about the book.
In the beginning of the story, Henry's master allows him to have some freedoms that other masters do not allow their slaves. For example, he was able to meet a woman he loved, get married, and have children. However, the first hardship Henry faces in the story is having his family sold to another master and taken away. My students are very empathetic and simply could not believe this. They immediately wanted to have a conversation about this (which we did quickly) and then I kept reading.
Henry ends up inside of a shipping box as a last resort to escaping slavery and heading up North. Although the story has a hopeful ending, it does not have a happy beginning or middle. My students and I talked about this. I believe I had their attention more than I would have with a traditional picture book because of the real emotions and sadness that the book encompasses. We completed our list of Henry's feelings. Some of their ideas were sadness, hope, and fear. We talked about why our nation does not practice slavery anymore and how public figures like Dr. King helped to end inequality such as this.
This was a great learning experience for my students that they still talk about. They beg me every day to read Henry's book again. I had several students ask me even more questions after I was finished reading. I feel as though this is a text that can be used for several different lessons, and for many different grade levels (depending on how deep into understanding you go). This book would also be very valuable for a character study. My hope is that this coversation and story is one that they will never forget.
Kristen DeJong started out as a Kg Teacher. She wrote this article when she was teaching that grade. Now shis is a second grade teacher at Bayless Elementary in St. Louis County. This is her fourth year of teaching. She has an undergrad degree from Mississippi State University.
She is currently pursuing a Master's in Literacy through Missouri State University with the goal of receiving a reading specialist certification. She reports that Read Alouds are her favorite part of the day.