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Learning by Going Backward

Colonial Williamsburg's rich offerings help bring 17th century history to life today

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.

"It's like a field trip and time travel combined, all without leaving the classroom." -Tresa Zumsteg, superintendent, Berkley (Mich.) School District

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.

Taking Colonial Williamsburg's electronic field trips for the past four years has transformed at least part of the school day for Glenna Raper's fifth-grade students at the Davis Elementary School in rural Davis, Okla.

"I have so many students tell me social studies used to be their least favorite subject and now it's their favorite," says Raper, who has seen student scores rise on the state's required history test for fifth graders. "The field trips add a lot of spice to the curriculum. They help to make history more real and make it more applicable to today's learners, which makes the learning stick.

"The electronic field trips also meet the modality of all the different learning styles. The textbook does not. I have a lot of students who might be more challenged with written words, and they can always relate to the online activities. I had one special needs child who would become engulfed in the Web activities, and he was so successful that other students asked him for help. You could see the lights coming on in his eyes."

Adds Saunders, "The activities are really good at promoting higher-level thinking--from presenting the questions and predicaments that the characters encounter to showing cause and effect.

Multidisciplinary Lessons

These activities regularly cross disciplines as well. "We're going to push the science envelope this year," says Colonial Williamsburg's Van Eck, referring to "The Rare Breeds" field trip coming up in January. The program will compare the specialized work performed by animals on Colonial farms to their modern descendents and provide students with a dose of genetics in the process.

Last year, language arts played a prominent role in the field trip on early American journalism. In publishing their own daily newspaper, student editors chose from a selection of source documents and also wrote their own editorials on burning issues of the time.

"There [is] no reason you can't use primary sources to teach reading," Van Eck points out.

For all of its multidisciplinary and interactive components, the curriculum covered by the electronic field trips stays close to national and many state standards for American history. A teacher's guide for each field trip includes objectives, strategies, timelines, glossaries, additional historical background and even take-home activities to get parents involved.

"The field trips are not an add-on," says Tresa Zumsteg, Berkley (Mich.) School District superintendent. "They integrate with what we are doing and align very well with our fifth-grade curriculum requirements."

Zumsteg points out the materials also fit well for Berkley's middle school students, and that some activities could work even in high school. At $500 a year per building, the annual subscription to the seven electronic field trips provides a cost-effective option for promoting history in her schools, she says.

"I really think this is a wonderful and economical way to make history come alive," Zumsteg says. "It's like a field trip and time travel combined, all without leaving the classroom."

"It's history for the new millennium," observes Hillsborough County's Daryl Saunders. "Teachers have not had a large repertoire for getting history across. When we give them tools like the electronic field trips, the students get excited. The teachers get excited. And this translates into learning."

Ronald Schachter is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass.