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In Class, Delving Deeper Into Jamestown

Amanda Gaylord and Jesse Judish, students at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, recite a poem during a ceremony for the planting of Jamestown oaks.
Amanda Gaylord and Jesse Judish, students at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington, recite a poem during a ceremony for the planting of Jamestown oaks. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007

For all the hoopla over the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, few people know about the "Jamestown Rap." It goes, in part, like this:

After J. Smith left it was starving time, yo. People are dying every day. They eating their dogs and their boots. But they're really dying from malaria. M-m-m-malaria. Jamestown Jamestown Rap! Yeeeaaahhh!

The song, written by Sean Willner, 9, and Rhys Davis, 10, is not available in stores. But you can find it in an online collection of audio and video works by fourth-graders at Arlington's Jamestown Elementary School.

The only public elementary school in Virginia named for the 17th-century settlement offers a window into how some 21st-century kids are digging into the beginnings of U.S. history. This year, they're going deeper than ever.

In Virginia, Jamestown is not just another colonial episode or the backdrop of a Disney movie. It's at the core of the state's origins and is studied in grades 4, 6 and 11. One fourth-grade social studies text devotes about 100 pages to the lives of Jamestown's Native Americans, English settlers, indentured servants and slaves brought from Africa.

Teachers encourage students to consider Jamestown through the eyes of each group.

"We ask them, what perspective do you think the Indians had?" said Mitch Pascal, an Arlington social studies specialist. "How do you think they felt about the Europeans coming? Angry? Curious? Threatened?"

Elsewhere in the country, the founding of Jamestown in 1607 is often taught as an important part of the colonial era but not necessarily given as much attention as the landing of the Pilgrims in Plymouth 13 years later.

Maryland's curriculum places Jamestown in fifth grade along with the earlier, failed English colony of Roanoke and the 16th-century Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in Florida. D.C. public schools teach fourth-graders about Jamestown's Capt. John Smith as they cover the founders of Massachusetts, Maryland and other colonies. California's curriculum mentions Pocahontas in kindergarten and Smith in fifth grade.

At Jamestown Elementary, students have been immersed in 1607 since the fall. They visited the settlement, participated in a Jamestown Live! event that linked students from across the country by Internet and went to assemblies featuring Jamestown reenactors. The fifth-grade choir plans to travel to Jamestown in May, near the time Queen Elizabeth II is scheduled to visit.

Fourth-graders created Jamestown podcasts. Student interviews, reports, poems, skits and songs -- including colonial-style music they composed -- are posted on a page linked to the school's Web site. This summer, the podcast page, http://web.mac.com/jamestownelementary/iWeb/Jamestown2007/Podcast/Podcast.html, is expected to tie into a Smithsonian Folklife Festival display on Jamestown's anniversary.

For their roughly two dozen podcasts, students have researched such topics as sickness and starvation and portrayed such characters as an Indian girl and a colonial wife. Some have staged interviews with students playing such historical figures as Pocahontas and King James I.


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