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Staff Blog

Pamela Jackson - Guest Services
It’s April! Spring is finally arriving after what seemed like an extra long winter, and Conner Prairie is open for the 2013 season. We have exciting things going on this year, including, but not limited to, the new history, science, technology, engineering and math exhibit called Create.Connect in the Welcome Center and the Nature Walk outdoors. We hope you and your family will come for a visit and try out these new activities.

However, that’s not all we have to offer in April. It’s time for the spring presentation of our acclaimed Follow the North Star program. More than 60,000 people to date have experienced a simulated escape on the Underground Railroad, and we’re looking forward to offering the opportunity to even more people this month.

Conner Prairie is known for accurate historical interpretation in the form of costumed interpreters, and the Follow the North Star interpreters very convincingly play the types of persons a fugitive slave might have encountered in 19th-century Indiana. And of course, the participants themselves are asked to take on the roles of fugitives. This can be a shock to someone who has visited Conner Prairie in the past and had a delightful daytime experience on our grounds. Follow the North Star requires that both interpreters and participants commit to the adventure, both as a learning experience and as a way to honor those who actually traveled along the Underground Railroad and were helped by compassionate people.

Follow the North Star is only offered twice a year, in April and November, so if you or your family (children 12 and older, please) or group would like to experience this 90-minute journey, please call Guest Services for a reservation. Otherwise, we hope to see you during our open hours this season as we “spring” into action once again.

Follow the North Star takes place on April 12-13, 19-20 and 26-27. Start times are staggered between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Make your reservations at (317) 776-6006. For more information: Follow the North Star.
Posted: 4/10/2013 10:01:58 AM by Conner Prairie | with 0 comments


Sarah Morin - Youth Experience Manager aka Kid Wrangler
Follow the North Star is my favorite program at Conner Prairie, as well as a favorite for many of our youth volunteers. In this Underground Railroad simulation, guests take on the role of black slaves escaping through Indiana. Along the way, they encounter characters who either help or hinder them on the way to freedom.

The youth tell me they enjoy volunteering at Conner Prairie in general because “It’s fun,” but Follow the North Star is not “fun.” Tasting even a hint of the fear, uncertainty, physical discomfort, and racial injustice a fugitive slave might undergo in the 1830s is not “fun.” Indeed, the content is mature enough that the youth have to be at least 12 to volunteer for FNS, and certain posts, like Slave Owner, we reserve for only the most mature youth over the age of 16. Why then do over 40 percent of my youth jump at the chance to work this program?

I chatted with 15-year-old Taylor Zimmerman to try to answer this question. Taylor is finishing her third year as a youth volunteer and her fourth season volunteering in our Follow the North Star program.  (We offer the program in spring and fall of each year.) Taylor often plays a character in historic costume. She has been interested in abolition since the 6th grade. She particularly relates to the Halseys, a Quaker family that helps the guests by feeding them cornbread and hiding them from slave hunters. 

“The Halseys treat the fugitive slaves like equals. I’d like to think if I lived back in the 1830s I’d be a Halsey and help people escape to freedom, but I don’t know if the fear factor would be at play. People who helped slaves could be fined or worse.”

Taylor’s own research and the hands-on experience of FNS have inspired her to fight modern slavery. She and a couple friends are planning to hold a walk in April and send the proceeds to Rapha House, which frees, counsels, and educates children in the human trafficking industry in Cambodia.

“The main reason I feel so passionate is there are a lot of girls and even boys my own age or younger living in slavery. The statistics are shocking. I didn’t know slavery still existed until I was in the 6th grade, and I know it’s the same for a lot of our guests. Follow the North Star really gave me a live perspective on what slaves went through, and are still going through.”
I asked Taylor specifically how the Underground Railroad experience at Conner Prairie made her feel.

“Scared. The first time I was even intimidated, even though I knew the people playing the bad guys. At the end of the night, one character points at you and tells you if your character is going to make it to freedom or not. Sometimes she points at me and says I’m going to drown at the next river or be recaptured and taken back down South. I know it’s just a program but I feel disappointed and shocked. It feels like I’ve been out there forever, and after all this danger and effort I’m not going to make it? I didn’t realize a lot of the people who started on the Underground Railroad never made it.”

“How would you describe Follow the North Star in one word?” I asked Taylor.

“Real.”

While Conner Prairie can’t inject the entire life experience of an African American slave into a 90-minute program, it was gratifying to hear how those 90 minutes are real enough to help a young person relate to the past and motivate her to make a difference today. Come Follow the North Star with us and maybe, like Taylor, it will change how you think about slavery.


Posted: 11/7/2012 4:45:22 PM by Sarah Morin | with 0 comments


Sarah Morin - Youth Experience Manager aka Kid Wrangler
Claire Ellis and Marin Bray are 3rd year youth volunteers at Conner Prairie. I often schedule these close friends to work at the same post – their enthusiasm and creativity multiples exponentially when together. Collectively, they have donated 1000 hours to Conner Prairie.

We invite our more mature and capable youth, like Marin and Claire, to portray characters along the Underground Railroad during our Follow the North Star (FNS)program. They help or hinder guests who take on the role of escaping slaves. The program is intense and brings up an ugly side of American history. This is exactly why we choose to involve our kids. Many of our youth learn to think more deeply about prejudice, racism, and human exploitation. Some became advocates within their own schools for human rights. It also makes a powerful impression on our young guests, who see someone their own age risking his/her life for freedom or to help a stranger.
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Marin and Claire - in their own words:

At Conner Prairie, FNS is a very serious subject; however it happens to be our favorite program. There are two posts that we love to work, Halsey and Merrick. The Merricks are an Indiana family that’s barely scraping along. No thanks to the slaves that have stolen all their jobs. Despite everything, they agree to help the slaves. Later you encounter the Halseys, a Quaker family willing to help “friends”. They feed you and offer you advice; alas they can’t keep you either and send you on your way.

Claire Ellis: I feel I relate most to Halsey. I’ve always been willing to help a person in need, and if a group of runaway slaves showed up at my doorstep, I would help them. I feel I relate to Halsey because when the slaves first enter, we all are in a state of shock. Then we decide to strap on our big kid boots and get the job done. We risk everything by escorting the fugitives across the street. But at the end of the day, I would do it all over again.

Marin Bray: When asked to write about my favorite post, I thought to myself, “Dang, should I be a good girl and write Halsey because it’s the ‘right answer’?” I think the characters at the Merrick post are easier for me to relate to. Don't take it the wrong way, of course I would help! But as someone who had no way of helping them I would rather send them on to someone more helpful.
   
FNS has given each of us a new perspective on slavery. Being part of the program has made us appreciate what we have today. We feel lucky to be apart of the program, especially with our best friend.
Posted: 4/25/2012 3:38:14 PM by Sarah Morin | with 0 comments


Rosie Arnold - Education Programs Manager
Sometimes learning happens quietly. You see or read something and then months or maybe even years later, you have another experience that calls up that bit of information. This is why learning in museums is so hard to measure- you may not know you learned something until much later when you figure out that, in fact, you did.

However, one of the things I love most about Follow the North Star is that you can often see its impact on students from the second they finish the program. Their faces and conversations clearly show that they have just experienced something important. They’ve gotten a tiny taste of the struggles faced by real people who were held as slaves and had the strength and courage to try to escape.

I like to sit in on the students’ debriefing sessions where they have the opportunity to discuss the program with a Conner Prairie staff member. Usually the first question we ask the students is, if they could sum up their experience in FNS in one word, what would it be? Words like “scary,” “exciting,” and “humbling,” are common responses. They often say that the way they were treated as they played the part of escaping slaves made them feel mad, upset, or even worthless. They are shaken out of their comfort zones and cast in a role where they have to step into perhaps the most shameful aspect of our country’s history. The reality of it is often quite a surprise for them.

Follow the North Star is undoubtedly one of my favorite programs that we do here at Conner Prairie, and I am so proud to manage it for school groups. It has the power to create empathy and understanding better than any program I have ever seen, and its impact is immediately apparent.

Posted: 4/19/2012 4:34:45 PM by Rosie Arnold | with 0 comments


Pamela Jackson - Guest Services
Welcome to this lovely, early spring! I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed the warm breezes, greening of the grass, and the budding plant life. But then I remember that Conner Prairie is about to start its April presentation of Follow the North Star, our award-winning Underground Railroad simulation, and I wonder how long the pleasant weather will stick around. This is Indiana after all!
   
With the warmer temperatures comes spring fever, an annual affliction of teachers and schoolchildren everywhere. As some of you may know, I “moonlight” as a secondary English teacher, and I’m finding it increasingly difficult to keep my students on task when they would rather stare out the window at the budding trees. I thought I could capture their attention by reading a piece of African American literature written prior to the Civil War, so imagine my surprise when my high school students knew little or nothing about that time in American history! Stunned, I asked the U.S. History teacher next door to me why they were so uninformed, and he told me it had been removed from the eleventh grade curriculum. In an effort to concentrate on Indiana Standards and test scores, a most critical time in our nation’s history has been eliminated!
   
I am very sad for the children who will graduate from high school ignorant of the hardships of slavery. As we say about our Follow the North Star program, “man’s humanity to man” was an attempt to right so many of those wrongs. I am glad that Conner Prairie has such a fine program to offer the community, and I hope that both students and adults who participate in it (either in the daytime or nighttime program) will take advantage of this great opportunity to supplement their state-mandated units of study.
   
Education in this state is under fire. However, education can be found outside a classroom or textbook, and Conner Prairie’s Follow the North Star is a great way to fill the gaps left by the myopic focus on test scores. Spread the word to family and friends that our children’s education can be enhanced by this hands-on approach to learning, and their knowledge of history will only benefit from the experience. 

Posted: 4/10/2012 4:22:36 PM by Pam Jackson | with 0 comments


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