JDR SR. FOR KIDS
THE POCANTICO HILLS SCHOOL PROJECT
Second Graders in the Archives: Using Primary Sources and the Web to Teach History
By Terry Hongell & Patty Taverna, Pocantico Hills School, reprinted from the Rockefeller Archive Center Newsletter, 2000, pp. 3-4.
The Rockefeller Archive Center is just a few short blocks from Pocantico Hills School. The students and staff at Pocantico have been fortunate to use the facilities at the Archive Center for research on several occasions. In the spring of 2000 our second grade students began a study of the life of John Davison Rockefeller, Sr. (JDR). We were privileged, once again, to have access to the wonderful materials at the Archive Center. Through our collaboration with Dr. Erwin Levold the students were able to examine firsthand documents and artifacts relating to JDR.
Each year we study a topic in depth with our second grade students. Our final goal is to create a student-centered web site. It provides the children with an authentic opportunity to share their knowledge and to teach others what they have learned. In the past several years we have created Internet resources on Harriet Tubman, Charlotte's Web, and Vietnam. Our project for the 1999-2000 school year actually began in the summer of 1999. Our interest in the Rockefeller family as a topic of study was sparked by Pocantico Hills School's involvement in the Stone Barns project, an effort to establish an education center about farming and life in the Hudson Valley in a facility on David Rockefeller's property. We also strongly believed that it was important for the children of this community to learn about its history, especially the life of such an important figure as John D. Rockefeller. In preparation for our work with the children, we read about John Davison Rockefeller and his family and visited Kykuit, the Rockefeller family estate, and the Rockefeller Archive Center. We then decided to focus the children's study on the life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.
Ron Chernow's biography of JDR, Titan, and Rockefeller's autobiography, Random Reminiscences, proved to be invaluable as sources of information about JDR and insight into his character. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a book about JDR suitable for our young students. We did manage to find one copy of an out-of-print book written for middle school students, John D. Rockefeller by Ellen Greenman Coffey in the American Dream Series. At this point we realized that if this project were to be viable, we would have to create our own book. We were mindful of the enormous responsibility of creating something that accurately reflected the complexity of JDR while also being appropriate for young readers. This was a challenging task. Without the help of the Rockefeller Archive Center it would not have been possible. We spent months reading, examining, critiquing and editing the massive amounts of information we had gathered from the Archive Center and other sources. We then carefully adapted the text of the Coffey book and used a photo journal format for our version. We were able to choose photographs from the Archive Center to illustrate the text. We now had a 40-page book, complete with timeline, map, glossary, and family tree. Each child received a copy to use during our study. The creation of the book for the children was our first hurdle.
During another visit to the Center, Dr. Levold arranged for us to examine many primary sources and made copies of those we selected to use with the children. We brought back to the classroom many photographs, pieces of personal correspondence, receipts, and political cartoons relating to JDR. The children knew that we were doing "research" and upon our return from the Center they all wanted to know, "How was it?" We talked at length with them about what we had seen and done as "researchers." In order to share the extraordinary collection of primary sources that we now had, we created a scrapbook and photo display for the children to investigate. Being able to examine and analyze these historical documents helped make JDR come alive for them. After reading about JDR's careful accounting from the age of 16, we used copies of several pages from Ledger A, his first account book, and created a mini ledger for each child to scrutinize. Some of the children actually used magnifying glasses to read JDR's small but very precise penmanship. We created blank ledgers for each child to use to keep track of his/her own spending habits. Finally, the children used journals, as JDR did, to make notes and record their ideas. With the development of these and many other lessons, materials and document-based tasks we felt we had passed our next hurdle.
Second graders are not the normal clientele for the Rockefeller Archive Center, but again the Archive Center and Dr. Levold were most generous and arranged a special visit. We believe our children are the youngest to be treated to a tour of the Center. The huge portrait of JDR in the lobby captivated them. Dr. Levold had set out original maps, ledgers, receipts and various other documents that he explained and allowed the children to view. The children were thrilled to see JDR's desk from 26 Broadway and his golf clubs. They wondered if these were the same clubs that he had used for his secret golf lessons to impress his wife Laura. In the newly restored ladies powder room, the children noticed the elegant furnishings and the painting of Queen Victoria done in 1839, the same year JDR was born. (The painting technique on the walls inspired our choice of background for our JDR web site.) They were fascinated by the storage facilities on the ground floor. The fact that there were so many documents relating to the Rockefeller family was very impressive to them. Finally, they were excited to have a peek at the rooms on the second floor where researchers from around the world work. We proudly pointed out the room where we had worked!
As part of our study, we also enjoyed a visit from Mrs. Rachel Gumina, granddaughter of Nelson Rockefeller. She came to our classroom and shared many wonderful stories about her family and her visits to Kykuit. She brought several of JDR's golf tees for us to examine. She also gave each child a dime, reminiscent of the way her great great grandfather handed out dimes. They were oh so proud of their "Rockefeller dime."
Our visit to Kykuit was also by special arrangement. Historic Hudson Valley designed a tour just for us that allowed the children a glimpse into the home life of JDR in his later years. It was wonderful because once again the children got a better sense of what his life was like. The system for summoning the staff was of particular interest. The children were also fascinated by some of Nelson Rockefeller's modifications to the house. Mrs. Gumina's visit to our classroom and our visits to the Archive Center and Kykuit were exciting culminating activities, another hurdle passed.
The product of our study is an extensive student-centered web site. It provided the opportunity for our second graders to demonstrate and share what they had learned about John Davison Rockefeller. The children used computer software to create an illustrated time-line of JDR's life. They drew detailed pictures of artifacts that we had discussed while we were learning about John. They generated questions and answers relating to John's life and then created a quiz, a crossword puzzle and a word search. They drew portraits of John to accompany the character sketches they wrote about him. We also used the pictures from the Rockefeller Archive Center and other museums to create an online photo album. Several of the items from our book also appear on the web site, including a family tree, a map of the places where John lived, and a glossary. Also included are pictures of the JDR game boards that the children created in art class. The children learned an impressive amount of information about JDR. More importantly, we feel they gained a sense of who he was as a family man, business giant and influential member of the Pocantico community. They were very proud of all of their work especially their web site. The creation of the web site was the culmination of our classroom study and our last hurdle, but hopefully it will serve as a beginning for others wanting to learn about the life of John Davison Rockefeller, Sr.
The use of primary sources is an important focus in education today. We believe it is one of the most effective ways for children to learn about history, people and events. We are committed to the concept that even the youngest of students can begin to learn how to examine records of the past. In doing so we feel they develop skills that will serve them as learners for years to come. We have watched our students become excited about history as they studied sources from the Rockefeller Archive Center. For example, one line in Ledger A referring to the cost of JDR's toothbrush generated a very lively classroom conversation. We discussed and debated what a toothbrush looked like in 1855, whether JDR used toothpaste, how much a toothbrush cost then vs. now and where JDR might have bought a toothbrush. Discussions like this are fueled by inspiring materials that entice students to read and think in a way that more traditional materials often do not. We are extremely grateful to the Rockefeller Archive Center and to Dr. Erwin Levold for enabling us to provide a richer learning experience for our students through the use of their resources.