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Troupe brings U.S. history to life for 5th-graders

Published: Friday, Dec. 26 2008 1:12 a.m. MST

Molly McGraw, portraying the pilgrim Jane Cooke from Plimoth Plantation, lets fifth-graders Hailey Flygar, Ashton Young and Jesse Hewett at Cedar Ridge Elementary School in Cedar Hills try on pilgrim clothing.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Never mind the 18-inch television, the high-tech overhead projector and the teacher in the corner tick-tapping away on the latest MacBook; this isn't a 21st century elementary school classroom.

It's 1626, just a few years after the Mayflower landed on American soil, and Francis Cooke, one of the famed ship's passengers, is trying to convince a class of giggling fifth-graders that the ruffled collar spilling out over his brass-buttoned doublet is "highly fashionable."

"You've got such a queer way of dressing, you children," said the pilgrim, surveying the denim-clad students curiously, as he plopped his rucksack bag on the economy-style berber carpet. "I don't know how your parents let you out in public."

Cooke, or rather, Michael Weber, the Massachusetts actor whose full-time job is portraying Cooke, came to Alpine School District earlier this month before the Christmas break to talk history with students and teachers. With him, he brought two other "pilgrims" and a "Wampanoag Indian."

"It's really fun to have a pilgrim in class," said 11-year-old Braden Patten, after Weber visited his fifth-grade class at Foothill Elementary School in Orem. "It teaches us about back then and what they had to go through so we can be thankful."

Weber and his colleagues work on a living history plantation in Plymouth, Mass. To bring them to Utah, Alpine School District used money from the $1 million Teaching American History Grant it secured earlier this year.

During their stay in Utah County, the actors gave presentations at 16 schools and taught teachers how to integrate living history into their lesson plans. The training is part of an ongoing effort to improve the district's U.S. history program.

"If all you ever do is read a book or answer questions, you don't understand history," said Sara Hacken, the director of the district's grant. "History is real people doing real things. We want to put the people back into the history."

Putting the emphasis on U.S. history is a task easier said than done. Elementary school teachers, under pressure to be well versed in everything from reading and science to computers, often struggle teaching history, Hacken said. Most teachers only take one history course in college.

"We want to give our teachers more knowledge and we want to show them how to present it in a way that's appealing to kids," Hacken said.

While the pilgrims who visited the district aren't historians (their background is in acting) they are veritable encyclopedias of facts about Plymouth's first settlement. Weber said he and his colleagues "learned" their characters, as well as the period accent in which they speak, from primary documents such as period letters and journals.

The 10- and 11-year-olds at Foothill Elementary were rapt as Weber vividly described the 66-day voyage across the Atlantic in the belly of Mayflower, which was built for transporting cargo, not people.

"It was a most unpleasant journey," he said, holding his belly as if remembering the nausea.

When the pilgrims first reached land, he said, the Wampanoag Indians greeted them with bows and arrows because they thought the Englishmen had come to take them away as slaves.

"All of a sudden, out of the woods came 30 Indian men," he said, his voice quiet and grave. "I took aim at one Indian man and I gave fire, and children, I thank God to this very day that I did not hit that man. I did not come here to fight Indian men. I came here to be a farmer."

Every face in the classroom was riveted on Weber; sitting perked up in their seats waiting for more.

"Before he (Weber) came, I thought the pilgrims were just people who came to America on a ship and had a big feast with the Indians," said Julia Livingston, 10. "And that's all, I guess. But they had lives and families just like we do."

That is exactly the impression Debbie Draper, a fifth grade teacher at Orem's Westmore Elementary, where the Wampanoag Indian actor visited, hopes to instill in her students using the living history tactics she learned last week.

"I've decided history is more than just dates and memorizing facts — it's the people," she said. "I want to make history real for my students."


E-mail: estuart@desnews.com

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