“Road Schooling American History: The 13 Colonies” by Heather S. Cole
VA Homeschoolers Voice, March-May 2018
It is a fall ritual that many of us who attended public school will remember: rows of little boys and girls in black construction paper hats and brightly-colored feathered headbands file onto the stage of the school gymnasium. A few students carry baskets of food: turkey, applies, cranberries, maybe a pumpkin pie. They place the offerings around a crepe paper fire, join hands and sing a song or two about the Pilgrims, the Indians and the First Thanksgiving in the new world. Parents clap proudly, and everyone adjourns to the cafeteria for apple cider and popcorn.
When my husband and I pulled our second- and third-grade boys from public school and began our homeschooling journey, I was determined that we would teach American history differently from how we’d been taught. No textbooks, no worksheets, no silly reenactments of Thanksgiving that bore no resemblance to the historical event. We would teach history the way it should be taught: by hearing the stories and experiencing the places of our past first-hand. Fortunately, many of those places are right here in Virginia.
So we loaded our car with a few necessities: a timeline, an historical atlas and a few picture books that I’d screened for historical accuracy. We selected a soundtrack: the hilarious history parody songs from mrbettsclass.com. And we hit the road.
The boys and I began our study of American history at Jamestown. There are two sites that together tell the story of the Virginia Company settlers and the indigenous Powhatan and are each worth a full day’s visit. Historic Jamestowne (historicjamestowne.org) is on the site of the original 1607 James Fort and is still an active archaeological dig. We took a tour of the fort remains with a knowledgable and engaging National Park ranger and then spent the afternoon in the onsite archaeology museum. The exhibits in the museum tell the story of the men and women who settled at Jamestown, but—more interestingly—also tell the story of how present day archaeologists and historians study the artifacts from the past to learn about what happened at Jamestown. The most fascinating story was how, in just 2012, scientific testing of a skull and leg bone led forensic archaeologists to conclude that there had been cannibalism during the early years at Jamestown.
Jamestown Settlement (historyisfun.org), located nearby, comprises a recreated Powhatan village, a reproduction of one of the boats that brought the settlers to Jamestown, a recreation of James Fort (circa 1610-1614) and a museum about all of the above. Living history interpreters were at each location and spent time showing the kids what life was like in the village, on the boats and in the fort. The boys tried sewing moccasins and playing corn cob darts at the Powhatan village, hauled water to the fort and watched musket-firing demonstration. The museum also has a special exhibition about Pocahontas that tells the story of the real little girl behind the Disney movie.
Native American History & Literature
From Jamestown, we travelled (figuratively) north to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, then through the mid-Atlantic colony of Pennsylvania and finally down to North Carolina. We couldn’t manage actual road trips to these destinations, but did our best with a few maps and some good children’s literature. For each colony we studied, we started by learning about the people who lived there first—the Wampanoag, the Delaware, the Choctow—then talked about the European settlers.
It can be difficult to find books that depict marginalized groups in a respectful and historically accurate way. When in doubt, I look to the experts: authors from those groups. Louise Erdrich, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve and Joseph Bruchac are among those who write beautiful children’s books about Native American history and culture. The website for Louise Erdrich’s bookstore, Birchbark Books (birchbarkbooks.com), also has a nicely curated collection of Native American books for adults and children.
I was particularly concerned about how to tackle the subject of Thanksgiving, since it has become so mired in myth and stereotypes. I sought guidance from the experts at Plimoth Plantation (plimoth.org) and we read several children’s books they recommended, followed by a chat about how and why we came to celebrate Thanksgiving the way we do today.
Frontier Culture Museum
I also wanted to make sure the kids understood the diversity of the people who lived in the thirteen colonies. There were wealthy landowners and colonial governors, but also indentured servants, small farmers, tradesmen and religious dissidents. There were also thousands of men, women and children brought to the colonies against their will and enslaved on plantations, farms and homes in every one of the colonies. Their experiences, both at home and in the new world, shaped the culture of what the colonies, and eventually the United States, would become.
Nowhere in Virginia captures those stories better than the Frontier Culture Museum (frontiermuseum.org) in Staunton. The outdoor living history museum is set up in two parts: one side is the “old world” where the lives of people from England, Germany, Ireland and West Africa are depicted just prior to their departure (or kidnapping) to America. The other side of the museum represents several periods in early American history (1740, 1820, 1850) with homes, a school house and church. Costumed interpreters demonstrate how cultures and customs from the old world came together as people from these diverse areas settled near each other in the Shenandoah Valley. We have been to the museum several times and, depending on the season, kids can try their hands at cooking, weaving, grinding corn, feeding animals and all sorts of other activities from the period. They also run a great summer camp that both of my boys have attended.
We sometimes think of the colonial period as a 160-year-long march from Jamestown to the American Revolution. But the 17th century was rife with conflict between various Native American tribes, colonists and soldiers from both England and France, and the success of the colonies was in no way guaranteed. While we didn’t have the time to study every conflict, we did select a few battles from the French and Indian War and discussed what this country might look like if the English had lost.
We wrapped up our study of the thirteen colonies at the place most people think of when they think of the colonial period: Williamsburg (colonialwilliamsburg.com). We visited during their March homeschool days, which was their off-season and thus had less going on than during the summer. However, we still spent a full two days touring the buildings and listening to costumed interpreters talk about life on the eve of the American Revolution. The boys were particularly intrigued by all the craft buildings, where they learned how books, guns, shoes and wigs were made during the 18th century. It was also interesting to contrast the relative grandeur of Williamsburg with life on the frontier in Staunton, and that allowed us to talk about how life changed in the colonies over time. Williamsburg also served as a great transition to the next phase of American history on our agenda: the American Revolution.
Heather Cole is a writer, historian and homeschooling mom of two very active boys-now ages 9 and 10. She has worked as a museum educator, ran a state-wide oral history project and worked on federal grants to train K-12 teachers on using local history resources in the classroom. She and her family moved to Staunton from the Boston area in 2014 and started homeschooling the following year.