A History Curriculum Lesson on Early Colonies in North America
This lesson plan works best with students aged 15 and up, both for high school and creative college classrooms. It asks students to look at a set of objects on the Historic Jamestowne website, and in groups, to collaboratively and to creatively reflect on material culture and to write a short one page story (narrative, a fiction based on historical reality) about how the objects they’ve selected would have been used daily by early colonists – in a sense, this story is “A Day in the Life” of men, women, and/or children at Historic Jamestowne. Teachers should develop a research and presentation grading rubric that will allow them to quickly grade students when they read, as a group, their stories out load to the class.
Jamestowne was one of the earliest colonies founded by the English in the Americas. Developed by the Virginia Company, a commercial enterprise, Jamestowne was one of two early colonies (Popham Colony was the other, and it has been extensively excavated by none-other than Jeffrey P. Brain – Popham Colony) that was chartered to develop England’s foothold in the New World. For more information, check out the Wiki (Jamestown).
The National Park Service website on Historic Jamestowne has excellent photographs and descriptions of artifacts that have been excavated over the past several decades.
Step 1 – Show John Green’s Crash Course US History video on Historic Jamestowne
Step 2 – Walk the class through the Selected Artifacts section on the National Park Service’s website – show them the kinds of artifacts that were found at the early colony and demonstrate to the class how archaeologists use artifacts to understand the past. The website provides significant information and description on how early colonists would have used these objects – if you aren’t an archaeologist, it might be tough to connect an object to a person and a series of events – use the following guidelines to help you –
- what is the object made of?
- where was it made?
- who might have used it?
- is it broken or whole?
- why was it found where it was found?
- are there many of the object or only a few?
- would it have been valuable and rare or common
Step 3 – Instruct the students to select 3 objects as individuals – this task should give them enough time to comb through the website and select object they find compelling.
Step 4 – In groups (of around 3-4), the students should collaboratively look at the objects they have all selected and then decide together on what kind of a short, one page story they could write using some of the objects they selected (they could use all of them, but its not necessary). The objects they choose to emphasize in their stories should show up in their stories and they should be used or appear in ways that are relevant and/or appropriate – the information about how objects were used can be found on the Jamestowne website.
Step 5 – Give the students sufficient time to write their stories – this can be done in class (perhaps 45 minutes to an hour) or outside of class.
Step 6 – In groups and in class, students share their one page stories with the class. Each group should stand up and project pictures of their objects in front of the class as they read their stories. Teachers, this is your chance to grade students on their research, participation, and presentation using your grading rubric. Each student should be expected to speak and to have contributed to the group’s story. Through this sharing, students learn more about various objects in the Jamestowne collection and learn how they could have been used by early colonists.
Step 7 – Teachers can give a summation of Jamestowne’s history, ending with its burning during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675. I would also recommend talking to your students about how archaeologists develop interpretations of the past and highlighting the differences between historical fiction and historical “reality” (inasmuch as it exists).
This exercise provides a rich and nuanced history of Jamestowne at the beginnings of the 17th century. As the students continue to learn about early American colonies, they will be able reflect upon early settlement life and the difficulties the English faced establishing a foothold in the New World.
Feel free to get in touch with comments or guidance.