It’s one thing to learn about Colonial times and the American Revolution by reading history books; it’s another to actually see history in action. Ms. Scannell and Ms. Frick, 5th grade language arts and U.S. history teachers at Tierra Linda, developed an innovative project-based learning (PBL) unit about Colonial America in Williamsburg, Virginia. Williamsburg is an outdoor history museum and town preserved in the time of 18th century America. Tourists can meet the townspeople, tradespeople, shopkeepers, political figures, women and the enslaved who explain their lives and perspectives. Last fall, supported by funding from the SCEF Educator Innovation Fund, Ms. Scannell and Ms. Frick traveled to Williamsburg to film this living history for their classes. When they returned they posted the videos on Google Classroom, a class share site, over the course of a month. The videos and photos became a cornerstone for their lessons, enabling students to watch history come to life from the comfort of home, and then arrive at class prepared to discuss a different aspect of Colonial America each day.
The videos captured a wide array of Colonial living, from the blacksmith heating and hammering nails into shape, to the shoemaker explaining that he needed 8-14 hours to finish one pair of shoes, to the printer demonstrating how newspapers were made, just two pages at a time. The milliner showed students all the layers of clothing women wore in Colonial America and the wig maker discussed why white wigs were so popular. Students were encouraged to watch the videos with a critical eye, noting how the shops looked, what items were made, how difficult it was to make them, and whether they would like to work in that profession. The teachers also filmed slave quarters and interviewed a slave who explained that his master owned every inch of his clothes. On the Google Classroom page students not only viewed videos and photos, they also interacted with each other, offering comments, feedback, and website suggestions for additional research. After watching the milliner video one student commented on the site: “I feel bad for the women and men because they have to wear layers. But I guess that was just the way things were back then.”
To culminate the unit, students chose a trade and wrote a persuasive essay arguing why their trade was the most important in town, and then presented their work to an audience of older students. One student chose to be a wig maker and as part of her project made a wig out of cotton balls and paper. Another group of students chose to be brick makers and constructed a brick frame to accompany their presentation. The presentations were videotaped and the audience chose the top three to forward to the Teacher’s Institute at Colonial Williamsburg. After watching life in Williamsburg, students were able to easily immerse themselves in Colonial times, preparing and presenting high quality work that showed the depth of their knowledge. Despite the enormous amount of work involved in filming, sorting and editing dozens of videos and photographs, both Ms. Scannell and Ms. Frick are glad they took on the challenge. Ms. Scannell noted “this is the knowledge they carry with them” to future grades, so it is key that lessons leave a lasting impression on students — and the videos accomplished just that.
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