By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.
Other than the chillier than expected weather, two grandchildren, Granddaddy, and I thoroughly enjoyed a camping trip to Williamsburg. There were no crowds to contend with, and since we visited the historic sites mid-week, and since schools are still restricting field trips due to the pandemic, the only children we saw the whole trip were from another homeschooling family back at the campground. Besides relishing an opportunity to spend lots of time together after a too-long pandemic separation, a goal of this homeschooling journey is to avoid risks of contagion of the deadly virus. With immunizations finally possible for children ages 5-11, the health risk of being with other children is thankfully coming to an end soon! For now, the children have each other to play with, and Granddaddy and I enjoy being frequently included.
Here are some highlights from our physical journey back in time to cover some American History content for the fifth-grader, and generally have some fun.
The Coffee Cantata
I had scoped out a couple of scheduled experiences for us to catch at Williamsburg including a guided walking tour and an operetta. I figured the tour would help us get oriented to the layout of the 301-acre preserved village, and the tour’s title, “Freedom’s Paradox” suggested we’d get an African-American perspective to the institution of slavery. The period-costumed guide was a wellspring of information about the economics, legalities and loop holes, role of religion, and human tragedies of this woeful situation. (A timeline of the Virginia laws pertaining to slavery in colonial times can be found online.) Much of this went over the children’s heads but gave us grandparents more background to draw from for later conversations.
The operetta, in comparison, was exactly our “cup of tea”. The description of this event said it was 20-minutes long – fitting our group’s ability level for sitting in one place. The performance included live music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, a singing teapot and a singing coffee urn, choreographed dance steps, a refrain for the audience to sing along, and our favorite part, a vote by applause as to which of three suitors the main character should marry. I learned later that Bach wrote the cantata between 1732 and 1735 when the popularity of drinking coffee was causing controversy since many people, including Bach himself, seemed to be addicted to it. Bach’s comedic story expressed the thinking of the times that coffee-drinking was a bad habit that needed to be broken. We’ll count the operetta as “Health” in the students’ portfolios.
Archeologists at Work
We stopped at an active dig site to chat with the archeologists. The children were full of questions which were enthusiastically answered. The second grader wanted to know what kind of artifacts had been found and what happened to them after having been found. Clearly these archeologists are passionate about what they’re doing and are eager to share that passion with curious children. As we walked away we talked about how some things, such as buildings made of stone or brick, can last a long time. I mused that something built in the 1600’s feels very old to us, but there are much older structures elsewhere in the world – castles in Europe, cliff dwellings in the southwest, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum in Rome. Perhaps these are for lessons for another day.
The next day we visited Jamestown. Both Granddaddy and I were eager to watch the glassblowers at work – something we remembered from a family trip a generation ago. Plus we hoped we would be somewhat warmed by the heat of the furnace!
The students watched with great interest. Three artisans went about their craft, chatting with visitors that gathered outside the protective fencing. Obviously this job, like that of the archeologists, combines specific skills with an ability to engage with the public. Our students marveled at the finished products on display as well as the preserved foundation nearby of the original glassmaking workshop from 1608.
Something that I think often gets lost on today’s children is that products are made by people. Here we were watching the glassmakers use traditional tools and methods to mix sand, ash, and lime, to heat the mixture, to shape the items – with their breath and gravity, and to put the final products into the cooling oven. (For more details on the process, see the Jamestowne Glasshouse website.) Tools and machines may be involved, yes, but even mass-produced assembly line products rely on human beings from the design stage forward.
As a way to pass the time, but also reinforce content and assess the students’ understanding, we played a game in the car. I had been waiting for an opportunity to use a book about the American Revolution that I had brought along, and wanted something other than cell phones to entertain the children during the long drive. I said I would read a bit at a time, and ask questions along the way. They would earn a point for each good answer. We agreed that after earning twenty points, the game would be over and they could play on their phones.
They used the dry erase board, lying between them on the seat, for scorekeeping. It was actually fun! The students took turns as I directed both factual and open-ended questions to them. Granddaddy, while driving, filled in a couple of answers – “What’s a mercenary?” was one – but the students proved they had indeed absorbed and processed a lot of material. Miraculously they each got to exactly twenty points as I posed questions about the final page of the book.
A few more highlights of the trip will round out this report.
There was a miniature golf course at the campground. The first time we checked it out it was after office hours so we couldn’t borrow any clubs and balls. Not a problem for these creative students. They took turns being a club or a ball and played each hole with one giving a gentle push on the sibling and the other doing a playful imitation of a golf ball in motion. When we actually got some real equipment, let the record show the fifth grader got a hole-in-one. Twice!
While noticing the sandy beach that must’ve helped to identify the place where the original glassworkers could set up shop, we noticed a ferry boat full of cars crossing the James River. Granddaddy did some quick online research to find out that there was no cost to use the ferry. That was a good enough reason to add this to the day’s itinerary. (We found inexpensive gasoline in the little town on the other side, so that was a nice discovery, too.) Our return trip across the river was on a ferry named “Pocahontas”. This was a good chance to retell what I knew of her place in history as the daughter of Chief Powhatan, the leader of the people the settlers found when they arrived to set up Jamestown.
With about an hour to spare before the children were due home, and needing to add some physical activity to the day, we decided on a quick stop on the Virginia side of Great Falls. It’s an easy walk from the parking lot for a spectacular view. And a nice geography lesson to show how the Potomac River separates Virginia from Maryland.
Fifth grade American History content accomplished and a whole lot more.
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