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Elementary Level Inquiry: Colonial Era Social Relations

Published on Sat, 05/12/2012

Archivist shows documents to 5th graders
Archivist shows documents to 5th graders

Exploring Emerging America's Windows on History Program

Since 2006, Emerging America's Windows on History program has mobilized more than 30 research teams of K-12 students with their teachers and in partnership with historical societies, museums, town and college libraries, expert individuals, and other very local resources. Students learn to think historically as they track down primary sources to tell the story of their communities and their place in the world. This is the second in our series of close-ups on these sites.

1771 Apprentice Indenture Agreement

Fourth and fifth grade students at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter School published their research at: Colonial Voices of Williamsburg. The site lays out students' entire path of discovery, including: photos and discussions from visits to local archives, student-created traditional Colonial floor cloths, a historical timeline, and ultimately, the gravestone of Master, Jonathan Warner.

Document Excerpt: …Bind the aforesaid John Curtis with his consent Apprintice to Jonathan Warner of Williamsburgh in the County of hampshire Yeoman to learn his art trade or mystery being a house Carpenter or Joiner after the manner of an apprintis to Serve him from the day of the Date hereof for and During the full term of four years three months and twenty days…

Students began their investigation into a 1771 indenture document at the Williamsburg, Massachusetts Historical Society. Having seen the real thing, they knew where the document came from and when. Now they gave it a close reading, picking out characteristics (old yellowed paper, stained, old-fashioned cursive, lots of signatures, probably a legal document). Once they figured out that it bound an apprentice to his master, they explored what the master had to do (teach a trade, and provide him with room and board) and what the apprentice had to do (obey) and not do (marry, leave, gamble, drink, etc.). Students discussed what these obligations might say about social relations in the era. Then they brainstormed where they could find out about these two people and their era.

Teacher, Laurie Risler, turns every class into a research and publishing laboratory where the skills of inquiry are the core lesson. (Though inevitably, such projects also spark students to retain far more than the usual degree of content knowledge.) In this case, students' journey led them to two local archives and ultimately to the master's grave site. Among other findings, both men fought in the Continental Army during the Revolution. Risler's students learn to question creatively and systematically. Their website beautifully documents the process of investigation and conveys something of their sense of wonder and persistence.


Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.