Plimoth Plantation: Live History

I remember school field trips as feeling restricted: No, you cannot touch that, it’s very old; No, you cannot go up the stairs, only staff; No you cannot sit on that chair bed stool bicycle, it’s worth more than you are; No, of course you must not breath. There were some exceptions, but overall, field trips usually felt like disappointments.

    And it wasn’t just the rules. Kids have a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t in terms of engaging educational programs. Of course, some kids are more inclined to pay attention or find something interesting than others, but this shouldn’t mean that teachers should ignore the kids who need an extra push. I have a theory that all kids want to see touch smell the real thing. I remember going to Lyndhurst, a historical landmark in my area where Jay Gould, the robber baron, once lived, and learning about the lives of women at the turn of the century. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a curious desire to try on a corset, and so when the teacher said we would find out what it felt like to wear a corset, I got really excited. Then the teachers passed out pieces of string and told our buddies to tie it around our wastes as tight as they could. I believe the word for this is Lame…and we all knew it, even at age ten.

    Experiences like that really drive my desire to change how education, particularly historical education, is administered. And so it was with great pleasure this past weekend my family and I travelled to Plymouth, Massachusetts and visited Plimoth Plantation, a living history site where folks can SEE, TOUCH, AND SMELL recreations of the first colony at Plymouth and the homes of the Wompanoag tribe. Not only this, but visitors can ask questions of the staff, all of whom reenact the roles of pilgrims and Native Americans. This past Saturday I sat on a real bear skin inside of a wetu, a Wompanoag home, in front of a fire, watching and smelling the billows of smoke rise through the opening in the roof while talking to an actual descendent of the Wompanoag tribe about the symbolism of the carvings of the tomahawk in my hand. Now that’s education!

    The tour begins in the welcome center with a film introducing you to the plantation and the facts about the cultures you are about to see reenacting. Myths about the first Thanksgiving were explained, tensions between the two cultures illustrated. From there, you walk down a nature trail until you come to the Wompanog village. There they have a few different structures, recreations of the winter and summer lodgings of the tribe. Several people, mostly Native American in heritage, are dressed in Wompanog attire and work on various tasks including weaving, cooking, and farming while carrying on conversations with visitors about the daily lives of the people in 1627. Miracle of miracles, the kids were loving it. They were running back and forth between activities, touching everything, testing everything, looking at everything, and not slowing down until they succeeded. Though some may say that this is no educational model because there is no guarantee of their retention of facts, I would put money on these kids remembering that day. They would remember the smell of that fire, the way the duck soup looked as it cooked over an open flame, and the imposing figure of the twenty-something Native American proudly answering questions about his culture. These things are far from superficial memories: these kinds of activities inspire a deep seeded interest in the material, motivating the kids to ask questions and do further research once they are old enough to do so. Some of the kids were already asking questions. Later on in the day I watched a school group asking questions of a pilgrim. Five of them had their hands in the air at any given time. Some of them asked questions clearly under pressure from the teacher, but some of them were genuinely curious. “How much does your gun weigh?” asked one kid. To my utter astonishment, the pilgrim broke all the rules I had associated with field trips and handed the musket to the ten-year-old kid. I could have danced.

    Moving on from the Wompanoag Village, visitors walk down another nature path, this one passing by a beautiful reservoir where swans glided by. It was beautiful with the fall foliage. Thanksgiving may not have occurred exactly as what our tradition tells, but I was sure thankful that day. It was a gorgeous spot they had for this plantation. The path meandered up and over a hill and came to a tall fence made out of crudely split, gray wood. Inside stood a large village of about twenty houses, a few sheds, and a church at the top of the hill. Reenactors bid us a Good Day in wonderful antiquated accents and welcomed us to their home. The first pilgrims we came upon were building a house. One worker split wood while the other attached the pieces to the roof. From his lofty perch he answered questions of the crowd about why he had come to America and the economic prosperity he hoped to achieve by the move. He said he was a laborer and could never have owned land in England. By coming to America and working for the colony company for six years he would earn a hefty parcel of land that would improve his status and make him self sufficient. This fellow apparently was among the 50% or so of colonists who had come not for religious freedom but for economic gain. He was contrasted by the next reenactor I came across who played the part of the deacon. It was he who handed his musket to the kids for them to feel its weight. He was dressed in a green outfit and wore a floppy hat. He had sparkling blue eyes and a handsome white beard. Best of all, he spoke with authority and enthusiasm, and did it as if he were thrilled to do it all day. And I could have listened to him all day. One of the school trip girls asked him, “Do any of the women here wish to have the same rights as men and to do as they please?” to which the Pilgrim responded quickly, “Do as they please? None of us may do as please! Have you not been catechized? And what does the catechism say? We all must work for God, for that is right and good. None of us are free to do as we please!” Bet that kid wasn’t expecting that answer.

    Inside one of the houses sat a young woman tending a fire. People shuffled in an out to ask her questions. The same girl who had asked about women’s rights asked a similar question of this woman. “Women’s rights?” she said, “What are those?” “Well,” said the student, “don’t you want to be able to hunt and vote and do the same as the men?” “And why would I want to do that?” asked the woman. “Even if I wanted to use my father’s gun, it is as tall as I am and I wouldn’t be able to use it very well at all. There is no point. Now, I can cook, so I ought to do that. If you were to eat my brother’s cooking, you wouldn’t live very long, so it is best I take care of that. As for voting, my husband and father vote on behalf of the whole family, so in a sense I do vote as part of the family.” Once again, the student was shut down. This woman answered questions about her age, the harsh winters, the difference between her life here and that in England, and her religious beliefs. “If you put your faith in Fortune, you are sure to be disappointed. We must put our faith in God.”

From inside this lady’s house, we could all of a sudden hear drumming. This turned out to be the call to worship, beckoning all the guests up to the meeting house at the top of the hill. Along the way, many of the families, including my own, turned around to take a picture as soon as they realized the ocean could be seen in the background of the plantation village. Folks crowded into the small meeting house where there were several benches facing a pulpit. Towards the side of the building stood another reenactor speaking on traditional worship practices of the pilgrims, highlighting the differences between their church, the Church of England, and all the pagans they came across in Holland. He mentioned various aspects of theology, told the story of their search for freedom from religious persecution but their desire to remain English in culture, and the grant given by the king to the pilgrims for them to begin a colony in the Americas. In the process of all this, he actually read from scripture, prayed aloud with the crowd, and sang a call and response with the group of psalm 100. After he finished his talk, he took questions from the audience on Puritan theology. Once again, he never strayed from character, but spoke with authority on his subject matter.

Moving on from the village, we came to the craft center, a modern building housing four work stations where craftspeople created clothes, furniture, pottery, and tools. When we walked in, a man with an exceptionally wild beard was giving a presentation on wood carving. His station was wonderful. The floor was completely covered in wood shavings, the walls stacked high with hanging tools and previously carved pieces. All around the room stood pieces of beautiful, carved furniture which presumably this gentleman had made. On the counter in front of the visitors sat books describing what the workman did, how it is historically accurate, how to care for the furniture, among many other facts. Across the walkway there was a full pottery set up chock full of various pots and dishware, many of which had we had already seen in the houses of the village.

Though exhausted and overwhelmed by this point, there was still one more stop to make. A few miles away in the town of Plymouth proper, a recreation of the Mayflower, the Mayflower II, sat anchored at harbor. It was only about a hundred yards or so from the famed Plymouth rock. I got excited as we approached the rock, as there was a stone, Grecian canopy housing it. Then I made the discovery: It’s a rock. From the rock, we went over to the ship and boarded. Once again, reenactors were ready and willing to answer any and all questions about the ship, the 1620 passage, or the strange Halloween decorations adorning the boat (they have a haunted ship event every Halloween). A shocking truth about the Mayflower: it is disturbingly small. I thought, surely, this could not be the true dimensions. But I was wrong. Somehow, that tiny boat held 102 passengers, more than thirty crew, all of their stuff, and possibly some livestock. And this for two months and change! Not only this, but the passengers had to stay below deck for this entire time, cramped and uncomfortable, trying their hardest to comfort and care for each other. Despite the reenactors on board, I still could not even fathom the difficulty of the conditions. The Halloween decorations didn’t help.

I couldn’t believe how much I learned in just one day. And it wasn’t just facts. Facts are bolstered by sensory experiences gathered from visiting the place, talking to the people, hearing the songs they sang, touching the pottery they threw, etc. I got to study their clothes, their homes, their accents. Of course, I cannot know for certain what I would have thought if I had visited Plimoth Plantation when I was little, but to the extent that I still am a kid at heart, I standby that this is one of the best educational models for children of all ages I have ever seen. I would very much like to work to create more of these experiences in the lives of children.

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