- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

Eight-year-old Trevor O’Shea first heard about George Washington’s Mount Vernon grist mill in the classroom, but it wasn’t until he saw it firsthand that he really understood how corn becomes cornmeal and wheat becomes flour.

“It’s fun to see how it works … how the stone cuts up the wheat and the corn,” Trevor says. “I didn’t realize the mill was so big.”

Trevor and other second-graders from Waples Mill Elementary School in Oakton recently visited Mount Vernon. They are the youngest students ever to participate in a structured educational program about Washington’s role as a businessman and farmer, says Nancy Hayward, assistant director of education at Mount Vernon.

“This was a pilot program. We hope to start offering this program to lower elementary school [students] in the fall,” Ms. Hayward says.

The idea is to reinforce what the students learn in the classroom with real-life, hands-on experiences, says Kevin Simpson, social studies curriculum teacher for Fairfax County Public Schools.

“Visual experiences help the kids make connections,” Mr. Simpson says. “They learn about George Washington’s contributions in the classroom, and this is a way to make history and social studies come alive.”

Neither Ms. Hayward nor Mr. Simpson thinks students up to third grade are too young for educational field trips. It’s just a matter of teaching on an appropriate level, they say.

“You have to be animated to keep their attention, and the storytelling has to be very interactive with questions and answers,” says Katie Pohlmann, a historical interpreter, dressed in a petticoat, long skirt and bonnet.

The instruction in the field at Mount Vernon is done by historic interpreters dressed in replicas of farm garb from the late 1700s.

Standing outside the grist mill with a group of students, Mrs. Pohlmann starts talking to the students about Washington, the entrepreneur.

“How did George Washington make money?” she asks.

Several children eagerly raise their hands, and Mrs. Pohlmann points to 7-year-old Emma McWilson.

“He was a farmer,” Emma answers.

“That’s right,” Mrs. Pohlmann says. “And what is a cash crop?”

This time, 8-year-old Felicia Clinton answers: “The main crop you sell.”

Mrs. Pohlmann goes on to describe certain parts of Washington’s business plan.

“George Washington made a lot of money selling wheat as flour — he even sold it to Europe,” she says.

• • •

Once inside the grist mill, the students learn about how the mill is powered — by water — and how a stone cuts or grinds the corn and wheat.

One of the interpreters inside is Mike Riley, and he continues the question-and-answer session.

“Could other farmers come here and get to use the mill?” Mr. Riley asks.

“Yes,” about two dozen children answer in unison.

“Did George Washington let them do it for free?” Mr. Riley asks.

“No,” they answer in one voice.

Of course not, Mr. Riley says. Washington knew how to make money.

The students go on to view the grinding process as wooden wheels churn loudly and the stone cuts the grain. Once the corn is ground, all the children want to touch the cornmeal.

Meanwhile, another group of second-graders is learning about crop rotation, harrowing fields and fence building. The children get a chance to build their own fences using long, thin, crooked pieces of wood.

“These types of light fences were used to pen small animals such as chickens and sheep,” says Donna Boulter, a historic interpreter. “But Washington also had very tall fences, up to eight feet tall,” Mrs. Boulter says while raising her arms as high as she can to show the children how tall 8 feet is.

Mrs. Boulter says that while Washington used many of his 8,000 acres for farming, he had plenty of woods on his property to use for fencing and building.

“The woods were an additional ‘natural resource,’” Mrs. Boulter says slowly and emphatically.

The second-graders are introduced to the term “natural resources” and others in the classroom before going on the field trip.

The children also learn about crop rotation. Washington rotated crops on fields to ensure good soil quality. He would grow corn and potatoes on a specific field one year, and the next he would grow wheat on the same field. The third year he would grow buckwheat, and so on.

The children also get to meet Frank the horse and Jackson the mule. Frank and Jackson are harrowing — or leveling — a field by pulling a harrow behind them to prepare for the sowing of black-eyed peas.

Livestock handler J.T. Hindle lets the children in on a little secret.

“Did you know that George Washington liked mules better than horses?” Mr. Hindle asks. “He liked mules better because they worked harder and ate less and were easier to take care of.”

• • •

The fact-packed lesson goes on for about an hour. Certain things might need to be tweaked, such as the crop-rotation exercise, Ms. Hayward says. During the lesson, some students who represented fields had to stand still, which they didn’t like, while the students who represented crops got to move around.

In a memo to her staff, Ms. Hayward wrote: “We noted that the ‘fields’ wanted to move with the ‘crops’ because it was a more active role.”

Lesson learned. In the future, the fields will be represented by dowels.

Overall, Mount Vernon staff, students and teachers seem pleased.

“We felt this was very successful,” says Gayle McNeill, a second-grade teacher at Waples Mill. “This gives them such hands-on experience with things they study in the classroom.”

The students know terms like “natural resources,” “capital resources” and “human resources,” and being at the grist mill and farm at Mount Vernon gives the children an opportunity to see real-life examples of these concepts.

Among natural resources pointed out were trees and soil; among human resources were slaves and others who worked on the farms; and among capital resources were machines, buildings and tools.

“We’re striving to create experiences and not lectures,” Ms. Hayward says while Mr. Simpson adds that he hopes the trip will create long-lasting and important memories.

“When someone’s talking about Mount Vernon, they might say, ‘I remember when I went to the grist mill in second grade,’” he says.

Trevor’s musings on the field trip are not quite as far-reaching, but still telling.

“In the end, I might learn a little more and remember a little better,” he says.

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