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Living History
By Lauren Goldberg

Anyone visiting or observing the third graders on "Early Connecticut Day" will see children and teachers dressed in period clothing, acting in ways that are not typical of our regular school days. The wardrobes, and the behavior, are the result of weeks of study and consideration of important questions about history:  

How do we study the past? Why do we study the past? How can we share what we have learned?

With a focus on local history (primarily Connecticut and New England), our students have gathered information about life in the past from a wide variety of sources.

How do we study history? 

Consult primary sources: "We interviewed someone from another generation," explained a student in Melissa McCormack's class. "We asked people about how they went to school, and about holiday traditions and pastimes."

Use inferential skills: "We looked at portraits of people from the past. We could tell what kinds of clothes people wore, and what kind of wallpaper they had," said one student. Her classmate added, "we could figure out things that were important to them because of what they held in their hands, like a book or some knitting." 

Immerse yourself in an experience: "At Sturbridge Village, we visited the school house. People in the town told us about their jobs and trades," a student in Ashley Schnabel's class told me. 

Refer to books and other media: "We read about a lot of different topics," said one of Amanda Diffley's students. Every third grade classroom has a large collection of informative books about life in 19th-century New England, with descriptions and pictures of homes, towns, occupations, clothing and schools. Each class also watched a video about the evolution of mills, and the impact of the Industrial Revolution on Connecticut.

Why do we study history? 

To compare "then and now," and to understand how events from the past have influenced us. "When we think of 'technology' now, we think of computers," Amanda Diffley reminded her class. "But back then, what were some examples of technology?" Students quickly listed developments such as water power, machines with interconnected parts, and early factories. In Melissa McCormack's class, a student explained, "those things made people more efficient." 

"Back then, you couldn't go to a store and buy clothes," someone observed. "You had to get cloth from the general store and make clothes."

"Back then, kids didn't have to go to school as much as we do now. Lots of kids had to work on their farms or get jobs," another child commented. "People had to use farms for food."

Many children shared comments from their interviews with grandparents, whose school experiences were significantly different from the present generation. "They had to walk to school, and walk home for lunch!" exclaimed one incredulous granddaughter. 

In Amanda's class, children talked about the arrangement of classrooms in the early 19th century: girls and boys would be seated on opposite sides of the classroom, and teachers might punish children's transgressions by embarrassing them and forcing them to sit across the room with people of the other gender.

In Ashley's class, students talked about the ways that gender affected work: "Women had jobs in the house. Men had jobs like tradesmen," one student told me. 

To observe the ways that communities work, regardless of the time period: "There were lots of jobs in the towns, like coopers and tinsmiths and cobblers," explained a student in Melissa's class. One of his classmates piped up, "People had to shear the sheep, and card the wool, and make it into cloth." His face furrowed as he considered the amount of labor involved in producing a shirt in 1830s Connecticut.

How can we share what we've learned?

Talk about it: "After we read books about our topics, we stood right here and made announcements to the class," one confident student said in Melissa's classroom, as she strode to a spot in front of the SmartBoard. 

Show it with pictures: Each third grade classroom has constructed an elaborate wall-sized map of a 19th-century town, complete with carefully labeled cutouts to show houses, farm fields, shops and businesses, and other buildings such as schools and churches. 

Apply the skills you've been learning: "We're making timelines of our own lives that are kind of like the ones we looked at," said a boy in Ashley's room, busily drawing a picture of himself from when he was younger. 

"We made our own portraits so that people in the future can learn about us," a student said excitedly. "We added details in our pictures to show things that are important to us, just like the portraits we saw."

Put yourself into history and celebrate learning:

  • "Tomorrow, when we come to school, we will act differently," someone revealed conspiratorially. "We will be like children from the 1830s." The desks in Amanda's room were already lined up in formal rows, old-fashioned style, when I visited the class on Wednesday afternoon. "Yeah," agreed a classmate. "We're going to sit the way kids did back then."
  • We're going to wear different clothes." What kind of clothes? I asked. "Bonnets, and long skirts, and aprons for the girls. The boys' pants are different, too," a student said. 
  • The students have also been learning about games and crafts from the time period. Needlework, including embroidery, paper crafts, hand-stitched books, and other activities are a part of the hands-on historical learning of the special day.
  • Behind the nostalgic outfits is a LOT of historical thinking! 

Lauren Goldberg is Foote's curriculum coordinator.

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Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.

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