Friday, January 22, 2016

Living Like George Washington

"First in war, first in peace, and first 
in the hearts of his countrymen."
- Henry "Light Horse" Lee

Mt. Vernon after hours
The above quote comes from the eulogy of George Washington, and pretty much sums up what the average American knows about Washington. We are taught from an early age that he was a strong leader during the Revolutionary War, the first President, and the Father of our Country. However, the man behind the legend is much, much more. 

While at VSTE15, I saw a tweet from @GWBooks in my #vachat Tweetdeck column about "A Residential Weekend with George Washington" at Mt. Vernon. I clicked on it to find that there was an opportunity for Virginia educators to spend a weekend on the grounds of Mt. Vernon, delving deeper into the role of Washington during the Revolution era. I applied, was accepted into the Teacher Institute, and made my way there last weekend.

Our political cartoon
In a word - Incredible. I learned so much from this experience. My brain is still trying to process all of the information I took in. For example, Washington's motives and views on the Revolution surprised me, and I gained a larger insight into his stance on slavery. I actually took notes by hand, which will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me due to my love of technology and atrocious handwriting, but I found it to help me in retaining the information. The scholars they brought in were amazing, as were the educational staff. Each of them had a great balance of knowledge and personality. The other educators joining me were incredibly insightful and a pleasure to be around.

I learned so much more than just content about Washington. A major facet of the program was learning how to effectively use primary sources in teaching. I have attended professional development sessions about using primary sources before and studied it extensively during my graduate program, but something just clicked during this experience. Specifically, I liked that you do not need to use the entire primary source, how readily accessible most transcriptions are, and you can use primary sources to have students create their own, as we did in the pictured political cartoon. I am going to be using primary sources to teach most of my upcoming Civil War unit, drawing on lessons and instructional tips I learned here.

Sunrise on the Potomac
Beyond the learning, the experience was truly one of a kind. We had total access to the grounds of the estate the entire time and were given an exclusive tour of the mansion. How many people can say they watched the sunrise from Washington's porch, gazed at the moonlit profile of Mt. Vernon from the back lawn, or enjoyed the sunset from the cupola of the home? I will literally never get to do that again (unless I am accepted for another program there, which I hope to do). This experience will definitely spoil me for when I go to another estate. Luckily, there are more Teacher Institutes in other locations and I have already begun working on the application for one at Monticello.

When I returned from the trip, I developed a challenge for my students on Google Classroom. It contained various tidbits of information I had learned, which would involve their research skills, analysis of primary sources, and family involvement. About half of my class chose work on the challenge on MLK Day, all working to earn a chance to view the sunrise through Google Cardboard. The parents and students alike enjoyed the challenge, which you can view here.

Sunset from the top
This post did not do the entire weekend justice. It was an adventure like no other. My knowledge of George Washington and my ability to use primary sources were definitely impacted through this experience. I recommend visiting the Mt. Vernon website and checking when they are offering one for your state, or other historical homes in your area to see if they have anything similar. You'll learn a lot and develop memories that will last a lifetime. 

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