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Barbara Davis and Nicole Cole with a character interpreter during their week at the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute. Photo courtesy of Barbara Davis

September 19, 2013
“I would like to start by saying that this was one of the most interesting and learning-intense weeks of my teaching career.” So said Barbara Davis, a fifth-grade teacher at Maire Elementary School and educator of 26 years in the Grosse Pointe Public School System, recounting the week in July she and colleague Nicole Cole spent at the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Cole teaches fifth grade at Richard Elementary School, she an educator of 20 years.

Designed for social studies, U.S. history and government teachers, the institute focused on the colonial period on location at historic sites such as Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. There, Davis, Cole and other participants were immersed in the economics, politics and social lifestyles of the 17th and 18th centuries.

At the very outset they assumed the identities of and researched their roles as gentries, tradespeople, indentured servants or slaves.

“We were ‘assigned’ a real historical person when we arrived,” Cole said. “We were asked to research this person thoroughly and to use this person throughout the week to ‘view’ the historical events of the time through his/her eyes.”

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This change in identity, in perspective, Cole said, added to the teachers’ experiences.

It brought the history alive and broadening and deepening their understanding of sites and events from the period, such as Colonial Williamsburg, “The Starving Time” at Jamestown and Surrender Field, the site of the last major battle in the American Revolution, where the British soldiers surrendered to the Continental Army.

Through the lens of their historical identities, Davis and Cole and others also interacted with character interpreters, there to help build a more in-depth understanding of the topic and points of view of the time.

Davis and Cole conversed with a merchant; an enslaved person; the Royal Governor’s wife, Lady Dunmore; an early Jamestown settler; a loyalist; a sergeant from the Continental Army; and Patrick Henry.

“Each of the interpreters taught us about a different aspect of colonial life, such as the economy, being a tradesperson, farming on a tobacco plantation, being a member of the gentry (elite) class, about colonial slavery and indentured servitude, the government and election process, and the military,” Davis said.

“I suddenly had a vested interest in what happened to this person I had ‘become.’ I had to try and interpret and analyze events of the time through a lens other than my own,’” said Cole, who became Lydia Broadnax, a personal slave of George Wythe, a revered lawyer and judge and teacher and mentor to Thomas Jefferson.

“Through Lydia, I was able to learn not only about her, but the connections she held to George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson and many other signers of the Declaration of Independence,” she said, adding this style of high-impact learning is something she and Davis plan to incorporate into their social studies lessons this year.

Both teachers attended on scholarship, their travel and tuition costs paid for through the Ayro Charitable Foundation.

“Thanks to our generous donors, we have been given unlimited access to resources and materials through the Teacher Institute that are directly tied to our Grosse Pointe social studies curriculum,” Cole said, adding she was eager to start the new school year and implement the ideas, materials and lessons gained from the institute.

Davis shared in her anticipation and excitement for the new school year. “This was truly one of the best weeks of my entire teaching career,” she said. “I can’t wait to share it with my new fifth graders this year.”

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