In doing, we learn

“In doing, we learn” is the motto in Jan Stallings’ 5th grade social studies class, and she’s found a very creative way to apply it to her lesson on the early colonists.

The class previously had discussed the Mayflower and related historical facts and figures. They’d constructed a model out of Jamestown out of Popsicle sticks. Today, Jan wants her students to “try on” what it was like to live as an early New England settler—to feel the hope, the anxiety, and yes, the fear.

She divided the class into four small groups; each group had a governor, a vice governor, and a sentry. They were given a set of “tools” – strips of colored paper—that they had to guard from the local Indians. (The class previously talked about the use of “Indian” versus “Native American;” the term “Native American” wasn’t used until many years after the colonists.) The assignment: Go to the “forest” at the other end of the classroom, cut down a (paper) tree, mill it for lumber, affix the lumber to a paper house, then “paint” the house according to specific instructions. The house would be inspected by Jan. Houses that followed the instructions were approved and could exist within the colony. Poorly done houses were rejected.

Students "construct" a colonial house in a simulation designed expose them to the fear and anxiety early settlers felt when they arrived in the New World.

“It’s got to be right, otherwise the house will fall down,” Jan told one young colonist upon rejecting his team’s effort.

The activity was timed, and kids raced to build their houses. As they cut, pasted, and colored, they also had to keep an eye out for associate teacher Linda Gordon, who, in the role of an Indian, would steal their tools when they weren’t looking.

It was fun, to be sure. “It’s like an extreme board game,” one boy exclaimed. But the activity also helped drive home a point.

“How did you feel about having your tools stolen?” Jan asked after bringing the activity to a close.

“We barely have any tools left!” exclaimed Kennedy H. “And if we don’t have any tools, we won’t be able to build our houses!”

“I felt scared,” said Tai R. “As a sentry, if you’re not paying attention at any point, your tools are gone.”

Jan asked the students to consider how the Indians were able to be so effective in their campaign to disrupt the colonists’ efforts. “Because they know the land better than we do,” one student answered.

And there it was. The fear, the frustration, the sense of vulnerability: students had just experienced a deeper level of understanding of colonial life that never could have come from simply reading a book.

Jan rang her little bell and class was over. Maxwell H. skipped off toward the door, fully satisfied with the morning’s lesson. “It’s exciting to be a colonist!” he said to his friend.

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