Back to the colonies: Fifth graders role play for history lesson

COURTESY PHOTO | Fifth graders Kal Lewis (left) and Mitchell Rice tackled the roles of Paul Revere and a dock worker in colonial times for a school project that required them to learn American history by researching, writing and then creating artifacts and costumes to demonstrate life in the colonies.

“Today was a very tough day. I woke up at 4 a.m. and the British attacked us. It was a hard battle that seemed to last forever, but it only took 30 minutes. We won, but with heavy casualties, 10 dead and four wounded.”

That was from a letter Captain Liam Adipietro wrote describing his life during the Revolutionary War. Well, actually it wasn’t written nearly as long ago as the 18th century. And Liam is actually a Shelter Island fifth grader who joined with his classmates in reenacting and taking on the personalities of various colonists as part of a history project.

The students were asked to choose a colonial occupation and then describe it, write a journal entry about it and build artifacts that reflected their roles, according to teacher Brian Doelger. The pre-Christmas project clearly captured the imaginations of the students and, perhaps taught them more about the early history of the United States than they might have learned simply by reading a book or participating in a class discussion, Mr. Doelger said.

From Kal Lewis, who took the role of Paul Revere, came this description written on stiff parchment paper, similar to what the original Paul Revere might have used: “I went to the North Church to meet with the sexton to instruct him to send a signal by lantern in the steeple, which would alert the colonists about the movement of the King’s troops. I told him to put one lantern if they were coming by land and two lanterns if by sea. Afterwards, I rowed across the Charles River and met up with a rebel who had a horse waiting for me. I headed north to Lexington and Concord and secretly warned colonists along the way that the British were coming.”

The life of a colonial soldier was challenging, according to Keith Taplin. Men enlisted for “excitement, a chance to prove themselves and patriotism,” he wrote. They also viewed their service as a means to earn money to finance land purchases.

“The colonial militia’s role was important to the community” that depended on “soldiers to protect us from harm and help us,” he wrote.

Lucas Quigley-Dunning took on the role of a gun maker, explaining that he spent long days repairing and manufacturing guns needed by colonists to protect themselves and to be prepared for war.

Not all the activity of the time centered on the fighting. From Amelia Clarke came this poignant account: “I had a tragic day today. I had a patient. Her name was Sara, she was 6 years old. Oh, what a dear little girl, so small, so weak and I couldn’t do a thing to help her. All I could do was tell her she would die and be welcomed into heaven. Sara was brave and the last thing she did was smile at me and her mother and then, eyes still open, she died.”

About the times, Amelia Reiter wrote: “Common folk worked solely to survive and didn’t care about fashion like we do now. What people wore defined whether they were rich or poor.”

Mitchell Rice wrote about his weariness after a night watch and then about working on the docks unloading cords for a fur trader. “The weather for our trip out of the port is damp and rainy. When we finally go down to sleep, there is so much sea water, mixed with human waste that it makes me sick,” Mitchell wrote.

He described the life of a sailor in colonial times as “rough and dangerous,” but said sailors “earned a lot of money for their hard work.”

Lauren Gurney wrote about how early colonial architecture was influenced by buildings in England, Germany and France and said the first buildings in the colonies were mostly Medieval in style because that was what was familiar to the colonists.

Architect Walter Richards wrote about the importance of placing a chimney in the center of a house he would be constructing for a couple in Vermont. “It is cold and nasty there. For this house, I’m going to design a chimney in the middle because the bricks heat up and heat the room even more.”

There were many more as students wrote about life as blacksmiths, carpenters, fur traders, farmers, printers, brewers and jewelry makers, making the past come alive in the imaginations of the young Islanders.
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