Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Battle Tour: Living the Past Anew

Historical marker in town
"If this Valley is lost, 
Virginia is lost."
- Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, 1862

And thus sets the stage for the Battle of Front Royal Driving Tour, an annual event hosted by me with my fourth grade students. The idea came to me in November of my first year teaching. One of my cooperating teachers, Bob, was down visiting me and we were completing the tour ourselves. Bob had always hosted Saturday field trips while I was in his classroom, and I said he should come down in the spring and lead a trip with class. Bob turned to me and said, "Justin, it's your my classroom. I will come down and watch YOU lead the trip." I accepted his challenge and began putting more work into the idea.

First stop, first year:
Ashbury Chapel
The Battle of Front Royal Driving Tour would perfectly coincide with our Civil War unit in the spring. The Tour is 16-miles long, with ten different stops. These ten stops include Ashbury Chapel (where Stonewall was told of a secret route into town,) Rocky Road (hasn't been changed since 1862,) Prospect Hill Cemetery (where the artillery was placed,) the Bridges (where Union force unsuccessfully tried to destroy bridges as they retreated,) Fairfew (the final stand,) and more. It chronicles the perilous day of the Battle of Front Royal, which included spies, brother literally fighting brother, and urban warfare. One of the primary focal points in fourth grade is the Civil War. I decided that there was no better way to teach it than let the students experience how the Civil War impacted their hometown.

First stop, second year
As I said in my HSCN blog post, I am a huge proponent of family involvement. I decided to make this Tour an event on a Saturday. I did this to avoid having to pay for a bus for transport, allow more interaction with parents, and to allow me to focus on being the tour guide rather than being a teacher. I made it clear to the parents that they needed to provide transportation and were in charge of their child for the day. I would not be Mr. B that day; I would be Tour Guide Justin.

I partnered with one of my colleagues and opened it up to both classes. I am very thankful that we collaborated on this. I get very carried away with ideas, and she helped to bring me back to the ground and work out the logistics. We developed a permission form, directions in case the parents got lost, and a feedback form. 

Reading a historical marker
Last year, we had approximately thirty families between the two classes, and this year we had about fifteen. Miraculously, we had beautiful days both years (aside from a little bit of rain on the second trip.) The first year, we visited each stop, read the historical marker, listened to an audio recording, discussed, and drove to the next stop. While I had originally said the tour would take three hours, it took over four hours. So much for not getting carried away!

Introduction in town. Note the binder with pictures
This year, as my co-worker and I reflected and discussed the Tour again, we decided that we were going to make some changes to the Tour. One of the dominant themes of the feedback slips was that the parents and students both enjoyed hearing my words during discussions more than listening to the recordings. We decided to incorporate the feedback. Using Google Drive, I wrote myself a script of what to say, based on additional research I had done and by listening to the audio recordings. You can read the exact script here. Because I felt the reenactors could sometimes better say things than I could, I selected powerful quotes from the audio recordings and condensed it into one file. We also found pictures of key individuals and concepts. At each stop, I gave a grand speech about what had transpired at the spot, interspersed with the audio snippets and had students hold up the pictures. Along the way, I live tweeted with the hashtag #BFRDT and students sent Voxes to some of our Voxer friends. This seemed to increase engagement with both students and parents.

At one of the most popular spots:
Prospect Hill Cemetery
The other major change we implemented was the elimination of two stops. While they both were interesting stops, they did not add to the overall understanding of the battle, and one was way out of the way. We felt that removing these would allow the Tour to flow more smoothly and to cut down on time. At the stops that preceded the skipped stops, I told them about what they could see at that spot, and encouraged them to revisit it later. This definitely helped to cut down on time, and the second year I was only fifteen minutes over!

The reaction to the Tour was overwhelmingly positive. Verbally, on the feedback slips, and through email, students and parents alike said how much they enjoyed the tour. I think the parents enjoyed it, if not more than, the students did. I personally loved being a tour guide for a day. I think it would be a fun job later on in life. 

Feedback slips
Another observation I found interesting was to observe how the students' behavior varied from the classroom when Mr. B was in charge to while their parents were in charge. In my classroom, I run an incredibly tight ship. Students know my expectations and I usually only have one or two students who do not follow these. Many of the students on the tour were like completely different children; running around, throwing things at siblings and friends, yelling, and talking back to parents. It made me see how some students are different at home and made me wonder how the parents were ok with this. Parents will often ask me for advice how I get their students to behave so wonderfully in class and I want to refer back to this day and just politely remind them that if  you hold your child to high expectations, they will rise to the occasion. 

One comment has really stuck with me from the first tour. At the end of the Tour, a parent walked up to me and mused:

 "You know, 
I have lived in Front Royal for my whole life. 
I never knew about any of this, 
let alone that there even was a battle. 
You have lived here for less than a year, 
and have taught me more about my hometown 
than anyone else."

Parent reflections on learning something new
Have you ever done anything like this in your teaching? How did it go? If you haven't, what would you like to do? Leave a reply in the comments below. 

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