Using a quill pen and a bottle of ink, the students took turns writing the first chapter of a book about two slave children.
The students from Harford Friends School had studied the lives of slave children, including how some were severely punished for sleeping late and made to work even when they were sick.
"After learning about the lives of slave children, it was hard for me to write about," said Sarah Waldron, 12, of Havre de Grace, who along with classmates wrote on paper made from cotton.
Sarah and her classmates took part recently in "Book of Dreams," a project in which students wrote the first chapter in a novel about slave children based on their studies of the Underground Railroad. The oversized book in which they penned their installment will travel to other schools, where students will write subsequent chapters in the coming months.
"The book will be a collaborative work written by middle-school children from many walks of life," said Gandhi Hurwitz, a parent of a Harford Friends student and the originator of the project. "The idea is that children from the inner city and children from the suburbs and children from small farm towns will all work together on the same project. It's all about teamwork."
The book itself is an imposing object. With a cover and binding made from black walnut and iron, the book weighs about 60 pounds, and is 30 inches wide, 3 feet tall, and 9 inches thick.
Inspired by the history of Quakers in Harford County who worked on the Underground Railroad, the project gives the students an opportunity to create a story about the life of two fictional slave children written from the perspective of children today.
"Most children today know very little about slavery or the Underground Railroad," Hurwitz said.
The idea to create the book began shortly after Harford Friends School opened in 2005, when parents were invited to lead projects throughout the school year. Parents signed up for activities that included bicycling, improv acting, movie making and crafts.
Hurwitz, a videographer, sought a project that would link Harford Friends students with students at schools throughout Maryland and beyond, he said.
His search for someone to help build the book led Hurwitz to the Steppingstone Museum in Havre de Grace, where he met Wade Whitlock, a woodworker, and Tom Alexander, a blacksmith.
Hurwitz wanted a book that would impress children by its mere appearance.
"The book has to compete with PlayStation so I knew it had to be physically huge," he said.
The cover design was created by Hurwitz's 13-year-old daughter, Clairellen, a student at Harford Friends.
The pages of the book are archival paper made of cotton, Hurwitz said. The chapters are written using quills and ink, as well as calligraphy pens.
In preparing to write their chapter, the Harford Friends students gathered in a conference room at the Hosanna School, built in 1867 as the first public school in the county for blacks. The students learned about lives of children who attended the school, which closed in the mid-1940s.
The students listened to presentations by Gladys Williams, a teacher who taught at Hosanna from 1942 to 1945, when the school closed. Williams, who later taught in public schools, discussed the differences between school then and now.
After Williams' presentation, Tamika Hudson, an actress from Dover, Del., performed a piece she wrote in her persona of Harriet Tubman.
The students also learned about the history of the Underground Railroad in the area.
"My goal is to teach children that history occurred in their own backyards," Hurwitz said.
After their studies on the topic, the students began writing. They endeavored to depict the hardships endured by slave children. The story begins with the birth of a slave's son. The boy called "Child" is greeted by a nanny, who tells him the harsh realities of life as a slave.
"No one will hear your cries, Child. No one will care what you say. They'll beat you till you shut your mouth, so you better do it now! Learn quickly, Child. Listen to Nanny. Don't say what you think, don't think what you say. Do what they tell you, don't question it. Boy, shut up!" She raised her hand to smack his bottom, but before she got the chance, the baby was silent."
"Working on this project made me realize how horrible human beings can be," Sarah said.
Emma Remsberg, 11, of Fallston also helped write the chapter and said she couldn't imagine living the way the slave children did.
"I don't have too many chores," she said. "The slave children not only worked all day long, they worked until they died."
With the first chapter completed, the book will travel to locations that might include the county's historical society and public schools. Hurwitz said he is seeking schools and children's organizations to write chapters for the book.
"It is my hope that the book will travel for years and that other people will get involved as the book circulates from state to state," Hurwitz said.
Middle school students are at a good age to begin to consider the many issues that come up in the study of slavery, said Jonathan Huxtable, head of school at Harford Friends.
"This project struck a chord. Issues of fairness and justice are so prevalent and poignant for children at this age," he said. "They have heard about civil rights, but none of them have ever had a direct connection to it, until now."
For more information on the project, visit www.bookofdreamsproject.org.