Electronic Field Trips Bring History to Life

Ever wonder how to instill in students the reality of early American history? Probably every history teacher has heard the complaint about studying "dead people" and how boring and meaningless it is -- how unreal it seems. Well, PBS (Alexandria, VA), along with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, may have an answer to studentsí laments of "I just canít get into it, it happened so long ago."

For those few who donít yet know, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offers well-received Electronic Field Trips that transport students to exciting times and places via broadcast, cable, satellite and computer technologies. These ventures are conducted by various educational partners -- in this instance Colonial Williamsburg -- that produce the content and accompanying print materials. Trips are then distributed by PBS to public television stations and others via satellite. PBS also helps develop each tripís online content on PBS Online (www.pbs.org).

Students Play a Role

Chris Sink, eighth grade teacher at Alki Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, is very enthusiastic about the Colonial Williamsburg Field Trips. ìI became involved because I have been a participant in the Colonial Williamsburg Summer Teaching Institute, where teachers are immersed in complete early American History,î she relates.

Her experiences with the Institute helped her prepare for the way she implemented Field Trips into her curriculum. Each trip has its own theme or topic and, after signing up, teachers are sent lesson plans and materials to use before participating in the Trip.

And ìparticipateî is really the correct word to use here. Students watch live telecasts, which include actors portraying various historical characters, and call toll-free numbers to vote on issues raised during the broadcast by these characters. Kids can call and ask live questions of the actors, who are extremely proficient at answering since theyíve studied their character and know them and the related history inside and out.

Students can also log onto PBS Online and discuss issues with students across the country in chat sessions set up specifically for each Field Trip. Experts are online, available to answer any questions from inquiring students.

One of the kidsí favorite Trips was ìOrder in the Court: Juvenile Justice in the Eighteenth Century,î according to Sink. This visit invited viewers to assume the role of the jury in actual court cases including an accidental shooting, the theft of a horse for a ìjoyride,î and other crimes that somehow seem familiar to modern students. This Field Trip, in particular, showed Sinkís students that the characters they study about in history class were real people, dealing with problems of their time.

Another topic, ìLet America Speak,î held in conjunction with PBSís prime-time Debates Night, included ìPatrick Henryî and ìThomas Jeffersonî debating the role of the federal government with each other, with 20th century counterparts, and with students across the nation. And still another Trip, ìOf Kith and Kinî explored the differences between the legality and reality of slave family life through storytelling, games, a wedding and various ìliveî scenarios.

Into the Curriculum

Sink is very impressed with the programís ability to get students involved in what some think is a dry, ìdeadî topic. ìI donít know of any other electronic field trips that are this interactive,î she says.

Also impressive is the way that PBS and Colonial Williamsburg are continually asking for ways to make these Field Trips more exciting and interactive for the kids. Sink, along with other teachers and students, helped develop lesson plans for the ë97-í98 Field Trip, which is an indication of both firmsí commitment to making this a real teachersí/studentsí project.

After participating in the Field Trips, Sinksí students engaged in a project that had them become a character from the 18th century, much like those in the Field Trips. They drew a characterís name from a jar and had to learn the characterís history, political affiliations and other pertinent information. They created a picture book that told all about their character, and then took their character through the American Revolution, playing out how they thought their character would react to certain historical incidents.

So, like the Electronic Field Trips, instead of just reading about history, they acted it out, becoming perhaps more aware of the implications of early American History and the real people and events of which it consists.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.