Through the generosity of the Lifeguard Teacher Fellowship Program (which supports the creation of classroom materials and teacher resources about the life, legacy, and leadership of George Washington….) ITeacher Fellowship, I’m privileged to be living on the grounds of Mount Vernon, working closely with the staff at the Fred W. Smith National Library.
My project is to write a play for teachers to use with upper elementary aged students. I love having a tangible goal – I know just exactly how I would stage 25 to 30 ten-and eleven-year-olds on a small stage (or corner of a classroom); so I while I feel dwarfed by the professional expertise of the hugely qualified staff here, I also know that I am the supreme expert on just how exactly kids will absorb the legacy of George Washington and the people who intersected with him in their own life journeys.
Here in residence for three weeks, I have wasted no time in taking advantage of the expert minds here: I think I have the cast of major characters at the ready, and soon – very soon – I’ll type out the first version of a play set with historic accuracy, but with fictionally creative license, at Mount Vernon in 1791. The cast of “characters” which are real folks who lived here, will include Nelly and “Washy” – George Washington’s grandchildren from Martha’s son, Jack. These children lived basically as Washington’s second family. I’m learning that blended families, due to death and remarriage, were as common in the 18th century as they are now in the 21st! The family tree connections are so complex I’ve been reduced to making a cheat sheet of names throughout the years of the Washington and Custis families. My version is a much ruder diagram than has been created by researchers here. Complicating the scenario is the very typical tendency of colonial folks to name generations of offspring the same name. The work of researchers here who are cataloging the primary source mentions of every single slave becomes all the more impressive when I scroll through digital mentions of “unknown” which go on and on and on. And on.
So how to bring to life these people who are bits of text on a screen? That’s the fun challenge and since I feel about writing as most people feel about dessert, I’m in hog history heaven. Not only do these people on staff here share my interest in portraying these historic figures in their real personas, but they are eager to pass along the passion and supreme commitment they’ve made into exploring and bringing to life these very real people that we can only distantly imagine.
So I feel emboldened not to let them down. I will continue to poke around amongst the amazing richness of sources I am privileged to access. I will ask the seemingly stupid questions on behalf of kids everywhere. I vow also to interpret all this information and channel it into an accessible, usable format for teachers who are always short on time and long on desire to ignite interest in children to be lifelong learners who strive to seek out more. Like these researchers I’m meeting here!