Naming and interrogating connections between past, present, and possible futures have always been central aims of the annual fifth-grade Work, Land, and Power in Colonial America project. Guided by the essential question, “Who built the United States?”, the project delves into the period between 1607 and 1687, tasking students with synthesizing fieldwork and deep reading to think through how power is created and maintained in the United States through systems and institutions, how work shapes the lives of all people, and how community survival is dependent upon access to land and material resources.
But this past 2020-2021 school year — the “COVID year,” as fifth-grade Science and Project teacher Meghan Morris termed it — put a finer point on the project’s contemporary relevance. The pandemic highlighted, and exacerbated, several overlapping crises across the country that felt crucial to address inside the classroom.
The summer of 2020 saw widespread protests in response to George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis and the corresponding mainstreaming of the Black Lives Matter movement. Instances of hate and violence against Asian-Americans increased in response to racist extrapolations of COVID’s geographic origins. A presidential election and violent pre-inauguration insurrection at the Capitol further exposed the fractured state of the country’s political infrastructure. On top of it all, COVID, as fifth-grade Social Studies teacher Annie Gentithes said, required us all to think about “who is essential” — in other words, how the virus compounded public health disparities, especially in terms of race and socioeconomic status.
How, then, to draw the historical throughline, to acknowledge the urgency of the present while drawing connections to a specific period in the past? The fifth-grade team — including Meghan, Annie, and Language Arts teacher Claire Koerner — used that particular year’s sequence of project work to lean in. “There is no getting it right,” Annie said. “The only way to get it wrong is to not give our kids space to talk about it.”
In previous years, the fifth-grade project team would begin the Work, Land, and Power Project with a two-day field trip to Williamsburg and Jamestown, during which students completed fieldwork noting how the two sites present their respective roles in American history. Barred from traveling due to pandemic restrictions, Annie, Claire, and Meghan decided to try something new by explicitly connecting the concept of Work, Land, and Power to their preceding project, Visible Values, which looked at the role of public art and how it represents a community’s values.
During Visible Values, the teachers “asked the students to take walking tours of downtown Durham,” Claire recalled, “and because of the Black Lives Matter movement [protests] that happened just a few months prior, there was so much public art around Black Lives Matter,” largely created on boarded-up downtown storefronts as part of Durham’s Pay Black Artists initiative. “[It helped] students connect to the idea that art helps us express our feelings and emotions. One of the things that our community here in Durham values is that Black lives matter and that Black history matters.”
In transitioning from the Visible Values Project to the Work, Land, and Power Project, the teaching team piggybacked on the present moment, asking the students to think about the cultural and political circumstances that necessitated the Black Lives Matter movement. To move from there back in time, they leaned into the reading repertoire they’ve developed over the past several years: one that selectively engages older historical writing with, as Annie described, “newer, more balanced perspectives and stories,” including The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” which argues for placing the consequences of slavery at the center of American history, and Kwame Alexander Bell’s longform poem “The Undefeated,” which details the struggles and celebrates the triumphs of Black Americans across history. (One important priority of the fifth-grade teaching team, Claire shared, is to focus on the “the joy, the strengths, the heroes, the resistance, and perseverance” of Black history.)
This past year, the students combined this “reading frenzy,” as the teachers called it, with a simulated on-campus “field trip” to Williamsburg and Jamestown to exercise their critical reading and historical analysis skills. They wrote letters to colonial history book publishers, articulating ways to better balance the historical narrative.
Having moved through these new, connective curricular approaches with the fifth-grade students during an unprecedented school year, Meghan, Claire, and Annie continue to think through fresh ways to draw the line between past and present. Is it most productive, for instance, to begin the Work, Land, and Power project with Jamestown and Williamsburg, or is starting with its contemporary links more suited for underlining the colonial period’s contemporary resonance? How can they continue to build thematic connections between projects?
“These are all conversations that we have with our students, modeling how we have transformed our own thinking,” Claire said, about race and representation in historical and cultural narratives in the United States. This transparency helps students “make strong connections between the institutions that were developed during the colonial times and how those have an impact on us still today.”
History, after all, is made in the right-now. The fifth-grade project pedagogy, always responsive to the times, prepares students to read history’s past with an eye toward changing its present and future for the better for all.