About Lightning Strikes

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Being a historian is like being a dectective

When we begin our Social Studies unit on Colonial America and the American Revolution, we start with an activity we call "Pockets of the Past." In this hands-on introduction to the 18th century, students act as historians or archeologists, examining artifacts and drawing conclusions.

My partner and I set up eight stations, each with artifacts and at least one document about a real person who lived in colonial Virginia. The "pocket" refers to the lady's pocket, which was a sort of bag that tied around her waist under her gown. There was an opening in the gown so that she could reach into the pocket. Men didn't have pockets, but they often carried haversacks.

Working in small groups, the 4th graders have to examine the items and read the document to try to determine the profession of the person, whether he/she was gentry, middling, or enslaved, and whether he/she was a Patriot or a Loyalist. They also need to list all of the items in the "pocket" and what they think they were used for. None of this is completely straightforward. The wig curler is always confusing - is it a piece of chalk? How can we tell if a person is a Patriot or Loyalist? Sometimes the clue is in the document, like the dressmaker who sailed to England in around 1775, never to return. Other times the only clue is whether the pocket includes tea or coffee beans.
A lady's pocket containing a hornbook for t
eaching her children, a needle case, and a wig curler

The big ideas in this activity are to engage students so they are eager to learn more about colonial America, and to encourage them to investigate, think, and draw logical conclusions using what they know and what they are given. It doesn't matter to us whether they get all the answers right, it matters that they became curious and started to imagine what these items could have been used for in a time before modern conveniences. We also hope they are eager to jump into our historical reenactment in which they will be portraying tradespeople in colonial Williamsburg.

We began preparing for this activity with several "Hands-On History" kits from Colonial Williamsburg. You can view and buy these online at Williamsburg Marketplace. The kits that are available are Soldier's Haversack, Lady's Pocket, Slave's Bag and American Indian Bandolier Bag. They are expensive at $99 each, but the education wing of Colonial Williamsburg has given several of these to us when we attended professional development events. My teaching partner does French fur trader reenactments and so was able to purchase other items to create more bags. You can find items online, too. We used the Colonial Williamsburg History information online to research real people to go with the pockets. Among our eight mystery people we have an Iroquois Indian, a gentry woman, a dressmaker, a slave woman, a soldier, a printer, and more.

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