Inquiry at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

When I taught tenth-grade American history, I had a sign on my classroom wall that read Never stop asking WHY. As an eager new teacher, I had plans to utilize inquiry in my classroom and envisioned my students, under my tutelage, asking big questions and making connections between the past and present. However, my inquiry-based planning was persistently interrupted by two main obstacles: 1) planning high-quality, inquiry-based lessons was time-consuming, and 2) my students did not yet share my eagerness for asking WHY. Regardless, I held onto my goal (and my sign) and after much professional development and on-the-job training, I became better equipped to overcome these obstacles.

Once I became skilled at implementing inquiry in the classroom, I began teaching social studies teacher preparation courses at a local university. In their lesson planning, I challenged my student teachers to answer that age-old question posed by students everywhere, Why do we need to learn this? Now, as the Director of Educational Initiatives at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I have the opportunity to continue supporting educators who, like me in my novice years, wanted to overcome obstacles and utilize inquiry in the classroom.

First, At The Freedom Center teaching for social justice is at the core of everything we do. For us, social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. When social justice is the goal, students are challenged to examine the world around them and to consider the rights and opportunities of all people. Students understand that they are learning about the past to understand the present so they can create a better future. As a result, the whys become clear: Why were rights and opportunities denied? Why does inequality still exist? These questions lead to others: How did this problem begin? How do we fix the problem? Who has power? Who doesn’t have power? 

When creating a better, socially just, future is the goal of classroom learning, we must provide students with the tools to create change. Therefore, the Freedom Center’s C3 Inquiries seek to empower students through questioning that confronts America’sr complex and complicated history. The questions driving our inquiries challenge normative thought, utilize multiple perspectives, and promote critical literacy. Our inquiries include skill development such as sourcing, contextualizing, and corroborating sources, and requiring conclusions to be based upon evidence. Naturally, we also suggest ways for students to take action and make positive changes in society.

Second, we put in the time so you don’t have to. Teachers’  time is valuable and limited, so at the National Underground Railroad  Freedom Center, we put support teachers by creating a growing repository of high-quality inquiries for classroom use. Our inquiries can be found both on our own website and through our Institutional Hub on the C3 Teachers’ website.

Third, using the Inquiry Design Model (IDM) the Freedom Center creates educator materials that expand beyond the historical events of the Underground Railroad to include a range of topics from various periods in history across the four core disciplines of social studies (civics, economics, geography, and history). In addition, our educator materials expand beyond social studies and provide opportunities for cross-content collaboration. 

Fourth, we seek to support social justice movements by motivating students to ask WHY. Asking WHY drives everything we do here at the Freedom Center. As a history museum, we don’t merely present information about slavery and the Underground Railroad. Instead, we promote learning through inquiry. We ask, Why did slavery exist and thrive in the U.S.? Why would someone risk their wellbeing to help others on the Underground Railroad? 

Finally, as a socially conscious institution, we are deeply aware of the people around us in society – how we impact them and how they impact us. This focus leads us to ask, Why do slavery and injustices still exist? Such questions define our purpose and when you teach through inquiry and the IDM, asking WHY drives everything you do. Here at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, we work to elicit curiosity through inquiry and ask our guests to make personal connections and understand their role in past and present society; as a former classroom teacher, I know that teaching is much the same. Now, in my role as Director of Educational Initiatives, I maintain the connection between inquiry and social justice. I know that for socially conscious teachers, those WHYs help students understand their purpose and power in society. 

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is proud to partner with C3 Teachers in the development of our Organizational Inquiry Hub. We know that getting credible, vetted, and expertly crafted materials in the hands of practicing teachers is central to our social justice mission. Please visit us on the C3 Teachers Website or at  the Freedom Cener’s Educational Resources to learn more about our growing catalog of resources and teaching for social justice. Feel free to contact me at with questions or for additional information about the Freedom Center and our resources.