Learning by Going Backward: Colonial Williamsburg's Rich Offerings Help Bring 17th Century History to Life Today

By Schachter, Ronald | District Administration, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Learning by Going Backward: Colonial Williamsburg's Rich Offerings Help Bring 17th Century History to Life Today


Schachter, Ronald, District Administration


For decades, Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg has given visitors an up-close and personal view of life in 17th century America.

More recently, this "living history" museum has created an ongoing series of interactive, electronic field trips that take a hands-on approach to history into elementary and middle school classrooms through a combination of video, online and print curriculum.

"It's history for the new millennium," says Daryl Saunders, the supervisor of elementary studies for the School District of Hillsborough County, Fla. Saunders has provided the electronic field trips to 70 elementary classrooms in her district, with another 45 classes to follow early next year.

Each month from October through April, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation launches a new program built around themes such as the daily activities of young people in early America, the development of public education, the political and human dimensions of the Revolutionary War, and the debate over slavery.

That curriculum has expanded to cover American history from pre-Colonial times up to the Civil War.

The centerpiece of each field trip is a reenactment of historical events, broadcast live and followed by a question-and-answer period with the "interpreters," who play characters ranging from well-known historical figures to everyday men, women and children. Participating schools that pay $500 annually can receive the broadcast through numerous PBS affiliates, cable television outlets or satellite feeds.

A toll-free number lets students submit questions, about 40 of which make it on air. The thousands not selected still receive live answers from a team of historians and retired history teachers working a bank of 30 phones. Hundreds of additional student questions submitted by e-mail over the next few days also receive individual answers.

Getting Students Hooked

"What really sets [Colonial Williamsburg] apart is the idea that we want kids to be able to ask a professional historian a question and get an answer, and through that to really generate some excitement for history," says Dale Van Eck, who produces the field trips and handles educational outreach.

"It was really interesting watching our students get into the story line of the history and then write questions to call in," notes Saunders. "They were hooked from there."

The broadcast sets the stage for a range of innovative and sophisticated online activities. Soldier of Liberty, which started this fall, examines the start of the Revolutionary War. In the lesson, students complete their own online personality profile that matches them with one of a half dozen historical figures who are either rebels, loyalists or somewhere in between. After reading a biography of their Colonial counterpart, the students can return to the questionnaire, enter different answers, and find their way--with an increased understanding--to colonists with different points of view.

Another activity asks students to purchase supplies on a limited budget for the 2nd Virginia regiment of the Continental Army. The new recruits navigate a panoramic photograph of an authentic storehouse containing everything from blanket rolls to "Brown Bess" muskets. Beside getting a crash course in Revolutionary War artifacts and their costs, the students keep a running account of their selections on an electronic ledger. At the end of their military shopping spree, they find out from a gruff sergeant whether they have filled the bill or perhaps have forgotten to purchase the musket balls necessary to the regiment's survival. …

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