HOT TOPIC: Colonial Times
Volume 3, Issue 12 - November 26, 2006

"This time of year, classroom teachers and social studies teachers are typically immersed in a study of colonial America. Done with map skills and explorers and preparing for the federal era, November-into-December is an examination of the forces and motivations that compelled early settlers to establish new colonies on the North American continent. And it’s not just about the existence of said colonies; it’s about the lives of those who inhabited them.

I used to love teaching this time of year, exploring the Lost Colony and the settlement of Jamestown and examining life in colonial Williamsburg. We always went beyond the historic figures and facts and learned the way of the Powhatan, the daily life in the royal colony and the interaction between these cultures. We were very hands on, building a full-size wigwam around which we celebrated a thanksgiving feast of shellfish and venison, studying the clothing, food and architecture of 17th century Williamsburg, and celebrating colonial crafts and Christmas in full costume just before our December vacation.

“But Walter, how did you have time to do all these things in an age of standards and standardized testing?” How could we not? In addition to all the other upper-elementary subject areas we had to cover, my social studies curriculum spanned 400 years of Virginia history as well as geography, civics, economics, anthropology and sociology. Several team mates opted for the drill and skill approach because of the sheer volume of information we needed to cover before state testing. We felt the only way to teach the curriculum effectively so that students could demonstrate their learning was to integrate across the curriculum with meaningful, hands-on, authentic learning experiences across all the intelligences. And so we did.

It was a lot of front-end work to plan this approach using the state standards, but we had to do it. We had always talked a good game about student-centered teaching; now we had to practice what we preached in the face of high-stakes testing. The result was the classes who stuck to their constructivist guns were the only classes who passed that first year of state testing. What a validating way to see our approach to teaching worked! I wish the same for you this year. Make your study of colonial times authentic, rich and meaningful, and may these resources help."

©2005 Walter McKenzie

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