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Virtual field trips: Ute Meadows students among first in district to participate in interactive series

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By Matt Gunn

Ute Meadows Elementary is about 2,300 miles away from Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. But that doesn’t prevent fifth-graders from taking field trips to the historic city.

All it requires is a good Internet connection and a willingness to learn.

The Ute Meadows students are among the first in Jeffco Public Schools to experience the Electronic Field Trip Series, a subscription-based interactive educational program available to educators through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and broadcast through PBS.

But the field trip isn’t simply getting students to watch TV.

“Subscribing buys them the right to interact live,” said Thom Adorney, the fifth-grade teacher who adopted the program.

The Electronic Field Trip Series takes students learning about colonial America beyond watching a film or reading a textbook. It does so by offering the chance to interact with historians and actors portraying historical figures.

Each month the series explores a different piece of American history through a live, hour-long broadcast from Williamsburg.

During last week’s field trip — “Founders or Traitors?” — students learned about the months following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the struggles both the Americans and the British faced during the Revolutionary War.

It wasn’t just re-enactments of important moments and significant battles. Rather, dramatic storytelling was interspersed with live question-and-answer sessions with none other than Benjamin Franklin, Adm. Lord Howe — a British commander who knew Franklin — and historian Bill White.

“When I started teaching here, I started to believe that we have to make American history really interactive in order for it to come alive,” Adorney said.

The electronic field trip brings a higher level of interactivity. Much of the subject matter is from the students’ colonial history studies. But the opportunity for them to call the show and have historians answer questions on the other end keeps students interested.

And if they have a particularly good question, they get to ask the on-air actors and historians and have the answer broadcast to more than 1 million viewers nationwide.

“I actually like it a little better than anything else,” said Tyler Dawdy, 11. “Except for PE.”

Tyler got to see historians answer his question on air during last month’s electronic field trip. Though it was a little nerve wracking to go live with his question, it was still a rewarding experience.

Such is the idea behind the series. Though students might be far away from the historic re-creation that is Williamsburg, they are still able to see what it’s like, while learning from people who devote their careers to history.

During last week’s lesson, students from across the country asked questions about many issues, such as slavery, war and the idea of a family divided by loyalty.

The historians portraying Franklin and Howe stayed in character, speaking appropriate dialect and not missing a detail of life in the 18th century.

“You learn a lot more — to me — than from a book,” said 11-year-old McKenna Milton. “In a book, you kind of have to visualize what you’re reading. In this you get to watch it and hear it.”

In a way, students direct what they are learning; because much of the live discussion comes from kids’ questions, the historians respond on a case-by-case basis. And the interactive nature of asking their own questions and not being lectured seems to hold students’ interest.

“They thought that history was boring, and then they realize that history is really exciting,” Adorney said.

Ute Meadows was the first school to participate in the Electronic Field Trip Series; Adorney signed up for it last year. Each series costs a school $500 to register and runs from October through April. That cost also includes teaching guides and is supplemented by Internet lessons and games.

But the highest value is giving students the chance to speak and interact with active historians.

“This kind of distance learning is something we want to do more of as a district,” Adorney said.

While there is not enough time during the broadcast to answer every Ute Meadows student’s question, the phone lines are open until an hour after the show ends. And each student who calls in, whether answered on air or not, can share what the historian told them with their classmates.

“I just think that we’re really lucky to do this,” said Kassey Kalman, 11. “It’s really a good experience.”

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com