Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
In the last post, I noted two trends in my American History survey classes: (1) Students arrive to the class unaware of what was once popular narratives in the story of America, and (2) Students have become increasingly interested in the stories of the everyday citizen over what the textbook’s regard as the most influential characters of this story.
In the example of Jamestown that I highlighted last week, I mentioned using John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia as one of the supplemental primary sources / readings. (A full text of the 1632 version is available here.) In past semesters, I’ve highlighted sections on a range of topics: on the voyage across the oceans and exploratory trips into the continent and on recorded observations on the indigenous peoples (and their languages and customs), the animals, and the flora and fauna.
This semester, the second session dedicated to the founding of Virginia was an improvisational exploration into the everyday and the peoples who settled in Jamestown. Luckily, I was able to start with Smith’s account of a list of names for people on the first three ships and in the next several supply ships the following years.
The question for the class became what to do with these list of names? Where might we locate more information about them? What sources existed? What libraries or archives might we have to visit to further unravel their individual stories? And if we found anything, what would these stories add to the larger story that our textbook limits to just a few pages?
Student searches of course led to Wikipedia . . . where they found “A List of Jamestown Colonists,” the same list Smith provides with a few helpful links. After breaking students into small working groups, I asked them in the time we had to select one person, to uncover all they could in 20 minutes or less and to orally present their findings, that individual’s story, to the rest of the class.
Despite their indifference to the John Smith-Pocahontas narrative in favor of the “everyday,” student groups selected Bartholomew Gosnold, Edward Maria Wingfield, George Percy, Henry Spelman, and Thomas Dowse, hardly a representative group of “everyday citizens”, but still broadening the scope of things for the class. Dowse, subject of the last presentation, fostered the most interest from the class. Citing an entry in the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, they noted Dowse was the only survivor of the attack launched by Opossunoquonuske and her Appomattoc warriors against a party from the Jamestown settlement in 1610.
I, too, participated in the project and presented on Anne Burras, the first woman to arrive to Jamestown.
Although time (and the overall scope of this group work) was limited before our shift next session to Plimouth Plantation, I was happy with the students’ willingness to play with some of the questions they raised and brainstorm alternative curricula and texts. Only time will tell if some students continue this research for their final projects.
Time limitations are certainly an issue in this sort of class, but perhaps I can further develop this into the lesson plan next semester. Although I share a link to the Virtual Jamestown Archive, I have yet to offer a formal assignment related to this to the class. And this is yet another resource that might open up conversations to new dimensions. In addition to offering a series of primary sources and first-hand accounts of Jamestown, the site offers a few interactive elements including a map of John Smith’s explorations around the waterways of Virginia and Maryland and virtual panoramas of the fort and the Indian village of Pomeiooc.
Through captivating and intriguing stories, a dialogue can open up about what is really going on with the person for whom stakeholders are designing. And when stakeholders understand their customers better, design can better serve them.
More importantly, the session demonstrated the importance of giving students the freedom and flexibility to research their own topics, to express their own needs and interests, and to elaborate through stories. The impact is immeasurable. And by delivering findings that offer a view through the empathetic lens provided by the emotional connection of stories, suddenly compelling insights and innovative designs feel more tangible than ever.
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