As I started my lesson, Briana called out, “Is it true that Pocahontas was a little girl when she got married? That’s just wrong.”
This is a typical response from my students as they are getting a feel for the world. When my seventh-grade history students are learning about a historical figure, they have a hard time putting themselves in that historical time to understand what life was like. They are starved for context, but it is difficult for many of them to grasp that life was different from how it is now.
This is frustrating for me and leaves my students confused. When we are learning about Pocahontas and the Jamestown settlement, my students cringe with a guttural “ewww” when they read that she was the same age as them and her love interest was possibly in his 30s. They need context. They need to know the norms of the time that we are studying, and they need to be able to escape from their own understanding of social norms that exist in their lives.
I have found that if I try to explain this context to them, they tend to get too stuck on what they are feeling in comparison to what they expect from their own worlds. I can explain things in great detail, but they want to argue. I have quickly learned that the best thing I can do for my students is to let them argue. I can let them create their emotional places and while doing so, create questions and desires to know more. If anything, they want proof that such craziness existed back in the era of study.
This led me to an idea of inquiry and writing. My students were emotionally charged and wanted to know the truth. They had questions, and they needed more information. I wanted them to empathically enter the historical era and feel what it was like to be alive then. I worked on creating an engaging way to make that happen.
I had my students get ready for some table work. They sat in groups of six at tables. I brought a Chrome Book to each table and appointed an Inquiry Secretary. They were the one in charge of the looking up the information requested by the group members. (I had only a few Chrome Books in my classroom at this time.) The others took out paper and a pencil and waited for instructions.
It was at this point that I created a minilesson on my expectations for the first part of the assignment. I explained that this inquiry activity was designed for them to get to know Pocahontas as a person. I assumed that most had seen the not-so-accurate animated movie, and I was correct, so I had to beg them to set aside what they had learned from it and try to keep an open mind, paying attention only to what they would learn today.
I gave my class these steps to follow:
- What kinds of questions would you ask Pocahontas if you were able to go back in time and meet her?
- Record these questions to be used during your inquiry.
- How would you get to know her as a person if you went back in time? Make a group list.
- Find some primary sources about Pocahontas and record anything that answers your questions or teaches you about her as a person.
- After you have used a few primary sources, try to find some reliable secondary sources to answer more of your questions.
- As you learn, discuss as a group and notice when you are getting to know her.
- When you truly feel that you know her as if you have met with her, let me know and I will come conference with your group.
I gave my students a total of 40 minutes to complete this. I knew if it worked, it would be worthwhile and would help them put the rest of the unit into context. If it didn’t work, they had practiced their group skills, practiced their inquiry and questioning skills, and read some primary sources. It was a win/win proposition!
As I was called to the first group for their conference, Alice started talking before I was seated. “Did you know that her father was the chief and he thought she was a brat, even though she was his favorite?”
Carl added, “Did you know that Pocahontas really wasn’t her name, it was her nickname?”
The information flowed like this from group to group with excitement, and my students wanted to teach me. Obviously, I deduced that this lesson had worked to get my students engaged and excited about their inquiry, but I needed to know if they were truly getting to put themselves into Pocahontas’s context or time period.
I returned to the initial assignment with questions in the groups.
What questions did you ask her?
How did she respond?
What kind of person was she?
Would you have been her friend?
What did her voice sound like?
Was she mature for her age or immature?
What made Pocahontas happy? Sad? Angry? Scared?
What was her family like? Her friends? Her enemies?
I had these conversations with each of my groups as the other groups dove further into getting to know her after I had my conferences with them. I noticed that my students felt close to Pocahontas. Even though some were stuck on her being a brat, they got to know her and what made up her world.
When I do group work of any kind, I like to pull the groups apart and have my students do some individual work with the learning. This calls out all “hiders” and “under-the-radar” students who thought they would let others do the learning, and allows them to have a chance to prove that they have learned as well. I also find that this type of assignment brings some closure to the work from the minilesson and gives us a clean starting point from which to move on.
I asked my students to do some writing with what they had learned about Pocahontas. I asked them to put themselves in her shoes and write from her perspective. Then, I gave them this scenario.
You are Pocahontas. Your new “white-skinned” friend is in danger because your tribe does not trust the white people. Write a one-page journal entry as if you are Pocahontas writing in her diary. Make sure you use the information that you have learned to give her voice and make decisions. What is she going to do? What is she afraid of? What is her plan? What would Pocahontas do?
My students were excited to start writing. Some said they were finished after two or three sentences and required some coaching, but most were off to the races. The results were good. There was clear evidence that they got to know Pocahontas as a person, on a personal level. They were also able to practice some empathy. While we read and learned more about the life of Pocahontas and the troubles at Jamestown, my students were able to connect to Pocahontas and see the events through her eyes.
Okay, Briana, now that you know Pocahontas, was marrying young really “so wrong”?