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Young Island students making — and changing — history: Manor history project for 5th graders

In very recent history, Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor is probably best known for its bucolic, 4-acre working farm.

Connecting the Island back to its agricultural roots, it’s visually anchored by its recently restored circa 1810 windmill, with its long, tidy rows and their beautiful colors of food crops and flowers grabbing your eye as you drive past the popular farm stand and CSA pick-up spot on Manwaring Road.

But unlike the rural beauty of the farm, there are aspects of the Manor’s history that have been less visible up until recent years — its support of slavery and indentured servitude among them. Now, thanks to a new pilot program, “Whose Voices Have We Not Yet Heard?” which started Monday, March 13, the 5th grade class of Shelter Island School will be playing a major role in changing that.

“It’s phenomenal to think about how much history hasn’t been told,” said 5th grade teacher Michelle Yirce. “We don’t call it a field trip anymore. We call it field work. We’re going into this with a different purpose.”

For several years now, children from the elementary school have come to the Manor for a day of learning about its past and present as a farm and its history and significance to the Island. With this new test curriculum, 5th graders will be hands-on at the 350-year-old Manor, exploring, discovering and eventually teaching about the lives of the Indigenous people and enslaved people who lived there.

“The school is such a great partner,” Manor Director of Operations Tracy McCarthy said. “Every year we have the whole elementary school come for an entire day and visit the farm to see what we refer to as the ‘historical core’– the Manor House, burial ground, north peninsula, and the gardens. They come every year and it’s super impactful. You see the kids progress from when they come in kindergarten up through 5th grade.”

It was so impactful  that Ms. McCarthy, who spearheaded the project, decided to propose a more focused, multi-disciplinary social studies project for the 5th grade class. The school and Ms. Yirce embraced the idea and took it a step further, bringing in curriculum writer Christina Lesh to help flesh out the proposal.

After months of collective work, the little day-in-the-life field trip has now turned into a plan with 15 lessons that will culminate in a final project: Creating a walking-tour app for visitors to the Manor.

“Visitors can come, listen to the app, and our kids’ voices will be the ones teaching them about the land, about Sylvester Manor and about the voices we don’t hear,” Ms. Yirce said.

This is a big part of the pilot program, which Ms. Yirce, Ms. McCarthy and the school administration hope will eventually be embraced state-wide, using the curriculum as a learning tool to uncover the lives and history of Long Island and New York’s indigenous people and what happened to them. 

“And that’s just one area that we want to concentrate on. We have multiple stories to share and this is the first,” Ms. McCarthy said. “The kids will have field notebooks like Indiana Jones to record journal entries and use as a note catcher on field visits.” 

The students will work on two case studies. The first focuses on the early moments of what the initial encounters must have been like between the native Manhanset people and European settlers, taking into account what was here, what they were doing, what the Island looked like at the time.

The second case study explores broader facts about European colonizers, zooming in on what happened to the Manhanset people after the arrival of sugar merchant Nathaniel Sylvester, who at one point owned the entire island after supposedly purchasing it from the local tribe in the mid-17th century. Sylvester also brought people from Africa to be kept enslaved to work the land, as well as indentured servants, some of whom were Native American Islanders.

In addition to creating the visitor’s walking tour, the kids will also present their findings, with their families and the community invited to come and listen to what they learned and the voices they discovered.

“What we’re doing is creating critical thinkers. They’re not just sitting and listening. It’s a way to make the [curriculum] standards come alive. This is really putting kids at the center of their learning,” Ms. Yirce said. “It’s hands-on and inquiry driven. They’re going to find the answers. The answers are not just in a book on a page. It’s a way to leave their footprint and make a difference. They have the power, even as kids, to change history and make sure all voices are heard.”

Amy Zavatto is the content director for Times Review’s newest publication, southforker. Find the magazine at southforker.com

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