The West Fairlee Historical Society and the Westshire Elementary School Community History Project
A joint effort of the Westshire School, the West Fairlee Historical Society and the Vermont Historical Society, supported by IBM, Verizon, the Turrell Fund, the Jesse B. Cox Charitable Trust, the Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation, and the A.D. Henderson Foundation.
From 2001 through 2003 the Westshire School and the West Fairlee Historical Society have participated in a pilot project with the Vermont Historical Society to develop a standards-based program of teaching local community history to school children to help foster a sense of time and place in their local communities. This has been such a successful project that the West Fairlee Historical Society and the Westshire School has made it a permanent program.
In 2003, the West Fairlee Historical Society worked with Barbara Griffin’s and Andrea Melnik’s third grade classes with the strong support of principal Joe Greenberg, to give the students an understanding of the history of Vershire and West Fairlee in the 1870's and early 1880's. This was the period when the Ely copper mine was in full swing and these towns were in their golden age of prosperity and growth.
The objective of the student learning process is to immerse the students in local history through a six-step program. First, the students read about history in their classroom—both non-fiction and fiction. Included is the story of Rip Van Winkle which sets the stage for the second step.
Second, four members of the West Fairlee Historical, Society, as characters in period dress from the Ely Village and mine, visit the classroom. Presumably these folks from Ely Village have time-traveled from 1876 to the present. They describe life in the 1870's in West Fairlee and in the nearby Ely Village and the massive copper mining operation. The mine captain even tries to recruit the boys in the class to work in the mine as was the custom in the 1870’s.
Third, the classes visit the West Fairlee Historical Society's museum to look at artifacts from that period and to view short documentaries about West Fairlee in the early 1880's and the Ely copper mine in 1876. The children bring their journals and write about what they have seen and learned.
Also in the third step the students take a field trip to the site of the Ely Village and the mine complex to view the few remnants of the past that still survive. Again, they write about this history in their journals.
Fourth, the students participate in an 1876 day during which they cannot use any modern conveniences such as computers, telephones, televisions and radios. Again the objective is to allow the students to learn about history by experiencing it.
Fifth, the students are shown a documentary about the Ely Village and mine in which the characters they met in step two in this program narrate a trip through the village and mine. When the Ely School is depicted, it is shown with the teachers and students in front of the building. As the camera moves closer it reveals that the students are actual them, the Westshire third grade classes with their teachers. Another method of immersing the students in history.
In the sixth and final step, the students write an essay about being a child in 1876 in Ely Village. This neatly completes the circle from reading about history to writing about history.
This has been an excellent project for the West Fairlee Historical Society and the Westshire School. The students have been enthusiastic and get into the spirit of the times, and try hard to teach the characters from the past about what life is like in the 21st century. The teachers and the administration of the Westshire School have been so supportive that this project had to succeed - they made it happen. Finally, the support of the Vermont Historical Society and the sponsors in initiating and nurturing this project has been invaluable.
Community history is not a subject that can easily be taught in our schools, for there are no text books, and little time for teachers to develop material. We believe it can best be accomplished with the support of the community and the commitment of the schools