The Foundation for a Meaningful Life
Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Fall-Winter 2019

Learning History from the Inside Out

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
Experiential learning in the Lower School curriculum puts creative problem solving in an historical context.
“Hear ye, Hear ye, Congress is now in order...One wig per person, please!

So perhaps it isn’t entirely authentic to the original Continental Congress, but the annual Sixth Grade Congress comes pretty close. Sporting white paper wigs, student delegates from eponymously named states like South Hodilina, Kleinsylvania, and Lylenecticut make proposals, debate their merits, trade votes, and lobby for support as they experience the challenges of creating a government.

Led by Lower School social studies teacher Bruce Chauncey, who holds the class to parliamentary procedure, students grapple with the contradiction of thirteen colonies that want to maintain their independence while needing to come together to survive. “It’s challenging,” says Bruce, “but as the kids go through the process, you can see the lights come on as they start to comprehend the magnitude of the problem to be solved.”

In fifth and sixth grade social studies at Fay, students aren’t just skimming the surface with names and dates. Through experiential learning projects like the sixth grade congress, they are engaging in creative problem solving as they get inside the history to understand the context and the perspectives of the day. “Our immersive approach to history in Lower School sets us apart,” says History Department Chair John Beloff. “Students are learning not only what happened, but playing out the different ways it could have happened to gain a deeper and broader understanding of why history worked out the way it did.”

The fourth grade history program explores the migration of people from Europe to the Americas. This curriculum sets the stage for the fifth grade program, where students explore American history from the colonial period to the American Revolution, focusing on the social, political, and economic growth of the thirteen colonies. Using interactive notebooks, students examine and decode historical writings, images, and artifacts. They learn to differentiate between primary and secondary sources, connect relevant ideas, and identify bias. “We study history in the same way that historians do,” says Bruce. “We learn how to read different types of sources and use them to explain our understanding.”

Fifth graders augment their understanding of the colonial economy by participating in Barter Day, where each 
student brings in handcrafted products to trade with one another in a simulated colonial marketplace. Creative problem solving is at the forefront as students conceive, design, and create their products. In past years, items have included cardboard Minecraft swords, homemade lanterns, and knitted wrist-warmers. Some students bring in abundant supplies of their product to maximize the number of potential trades, while others seek to drive up the value of their product with smaller stock. “For students just learning about trade and economics, Barter Day is an opportunity to test out some of those ideas and experience them first hand in a simple but illustrative way,” says Bruce.

The study of joint-stock companies, such as the Virginia Company, which settled Jamestown, offers students another opportunity to experience a piece of colonial history. Fifth graders explore the risks of investing in a colony as they form their own companies, sell stock to their classmates, and then roll a die to see whether the ship carrying their company’s goods will make it across the ocean. As in colonial times, some investors experience great success while others lose everything.

As sixth graders make proposals, debate ideas, and attempt to solve the problem of what their new govern- ment should look like, Bruce challenges them to place themselves in the same situation that delegates would have faced. They’ve declared independence and are now at war with England. “What ideas from the Declaration suggest the kind of government that states would want, and what ideas were floating around at that time that people might have gravitated towards?” asks Bruce. “We get into the historical ideas of context and perspective.” Among other issues, this year’s sixth graders debated trade between the states, whether an individual state should be able to declare war, and whether a citizen needs to own property to vote.

Once each class has debated on and voted for a Constitution—a process that usually takes several class periods—Congress concludes, and Bruce reveals the actual history behind the experience. “I could go right to the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and just tell them what happened, but when students have the opportunity to experience the challenge of creating a government, it is so much more powerful.”
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