Loudoun Extra

History: High-Tech, Hands-On

Owen Reynolds, a fourth-grader at Mountain View Elementary School in Purcellville, runs through his PowerPoint presentation on Jamestown with his teacher Laura Rahn and technology assistant Kirsten Elowsky.
Owen Reynolds, a fourth-grader at Mountain View Elementary School in Purcellville, runs through his PowerPoint presentation on Jamestown with his teacher Laura Rahn and technology assistant Kirsten Elowsky. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007

If fourth-grader Owen Reynolds were a Powhatan Indian living in 17th-century Virginia, he would be an indentured servant for English settlers working on a tobacco field. He would eat rabbit stew, hunt wolves with a bow and arrow, and eventually escape to freedom on a log raft tied together with the roots of plants.

At least that's the life he sketched for himself during a class assignment at Mountain View Elementary School in Purcellville. When he was finished with his historical narrative, he chose pictures of Colonial huts and Virginia rivers to accompany it, recorded the whole tale, and added music and even a gunshot to fill out the soundtrack.

Now it's a movie, showing in the Mountain View computer lab. This high-tech assignment is just one of dozens of activities that teachers are planning on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States.

Along with America's milestone, there's a more local anniversary to celebrate 250 years after the founding of Loudoun County, and teachers have been busy looking for ways to make these historical events come to life.

Most of the activities are taking place in fourth-grade classrooms, where state curriculum standards call for a full year of Virginia history. But Jamestown anniversary events are happening across grade levels, said William F. Brazier, social science supervisor for Loudoun schools. "This year is, of course, a big deal," he said.

A student from Belmont Ridge Middle School traveled to Jamestown in November to participate in a webcast that was shown in classrooms across the country, and the upcoming Loudoun social sciences fair in June will offer a new anniversary category that will include projects about Jamestown history.

This year, more public school teachers are requesting visits from historians at the Loudoun Museum, said Melissa Zellers, the museum's director of education. The museum offers several programs, including a retrospective on Loudoun history that was created with two local historical associations in preparation for the anniversary.

For classroom visits, they bring in artifacts, such as quill pens, inkwells or sealing wax, to demonstrate the difference between daily activities then and now. They also bring in costumes. They let boys try on soldiers' uniforms to gauge how heavy they were and to imagine carrying those uniforms for survival.

"That is what engages students -- hands-on history," Zellers said. "That's what starts to bring it to life for them."

To help history teachers move beyond the pages of textbooks, Loudoun is offering free tuition at George Mason University on courses about Virginia history and how to use primary historical sources, such as journal entries and early maps.

The training is part of a $1 million grant Loudoun won in 2005 from the federal Department of Education to bolster Virginia history lessons.

For many years, second- and fourth-grade classrooms have hosted lessons from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation about the lives of settlers and Indians around Jamestown. This year, Reynolds and his classmates traveled to Jamestown, where they got to see many of the things he has been learning about this year, including a re-created Powhatan village.

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