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Second-graders make virtual visit to Historical Society and Shaker Village

For more than 15 years the Hildreth Elementary School second-graders have been visiting the Harvard Historical Society in late May or early June. There they talked about why history is important, and they engaged in different activities that immersed them in the history of their town. This year, since the students couldn’t go to the society, second-grade teacher Chris Snell brought the Historical Society to them. Through short, interactive videos, Snell made this visit to the society almost as fun and educational as the traditional visit. He also brought two Shaker experts and their chickens into the children’s homes.

In the early weeks of school cancellation, Snell took the time to further explore using his school-issued iPad to make videos. After recording several of his walks through woods, he wanted to turn his newfound expertise to something more school-related, in anticipation of what might lie ahead. When it was announced that students would not be returning to school, Snell realized there would be no field trip to Shaker Village or the Historical Society, both of which have been important parts of the second-grade social studies curriculum. The children study their family ancestry and the history of the Native Americans in the first part of the year, and the history of the Shakers and early Harvard make up the second half. Snell didn’t want students to miss out on those important pieces of history that he believes help broaden their concept of the importance of past cultures and how they connect with their own lives.

Second-grade Hildreth Elementary School teacher Chris Snell records a video with his iPad and computer for a virtual tour of Shaker Village on South Shaker Road, May 24. The video is for the second-grade unit on Harvard history. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

Touring the Historical Society

In mid-April, Snell went to the Historical Society in Still River to meet up with Judy Warner, the society’s administrator, and make some short videos. They started outside, where one sign on the building identifies it as the Baptist Church established in 1832, and a sign on the opposite side reads “Harvard Historical Society 1897.” Snell videoed Warner as she explained that the Historical Society keeps things from the past—furniture, paintings, documents, signs, clothing, and objects—that belonged to residents of Harvard in earlier times. “These collections tell us what life was like back then and what we can learn about our own lives today,” she said. “History has lessons for now.” She added that the society currently collects things so that people in the future can learn about life in the early 21st century.

The inside tour of the Sturdy Hall room showed many signs and pictures on the walls, one of which reads “Dr. H.B. Royal” and would have identified the doctor’s office at 1 Elm Street. Of a picture showing two horses hitched to a stagecoach in front of the old Harvard Depot, or railroad station, Warner said the stage was waiting to bring mail and passengers from the train up to the center. Another picture shows a building that used to be where the Still River post office is now—Willard Farm Store, with a gas pump in front. Warner pointed out that Paul Willard, who runs Willard Farm farther down the road, is a direct descendent of that earlier Willard.

Snell and Warner made another video focusing on particularly interesting artifacts in the collection. Warner chose several objects, most of them everyday household items, and silently held them up one at a time. In another segment, Warner explains what each artifact is and how it would have been used in the past.

Identifying artifacts

These past few weeks, all second-graders engaged in activities responding to the videos, using their critical and creative thinking skills and deepening their understanding of the concept of history. After the first video, they talked about why it’s important to learn from historical events, and they wrote their personal history, using three events from their past. They imagined themselves making history by choosing three objects from their current lives that they thought would be considered artifacts in 50 years. One of Snell’s students, Aine Clarke, wrote in an email that she chose a nutcracker. “I think it is an interesting object because it is something that they used a long time ago, but we still use today, and it will probably be used 50 years from now,” she explained.

The students answered questions about the artifacts Warner had shown in the video. For each one they had to say what the object was, guess what it was used for, and suggest who would have used it long ago. They then watched as Warner held up and explained each artifact so the students could see how well they had guessed. Aine said the artifact most strange to her was the tool/noisemaker that sounded like gunshots. She wrote: “I was surprised to learn that it was used to scare away crows and birds from the garden once the corn and other seeds were planted. A child would be sent out to the garden swinging it around and a LOUD noise came out.” She said one artifact she guessed correctly was the metal egg carrier, but, she said, “I didn’t know that it was invented in Harvard by a man named Mr. Samuel Houghton, who used to live in the town center not far from my house.” She liked that his invention was shipped all over “so people could safely get their eggs in the house.”

Visiting the Shakers

To replace the second-graders’ annual trip to Shaker Village, Snell took them on a virtual visit to Charlotte and Will Kemeza, who live in the renovated South Family Dwelling House on South Shaker Road next to the remains of the old stone barn. (Judy Warner lives next door in the former Sisters’ Shop.) In the background where the couple sat was a picturesque scene of rolling pastureland, grazing sheep, weeping willow trees, and a pond. And Snell had already videoed the chickens. “One of the cool things about the Shakers was the way they shaped the landscape,” said Will. They created ponds from streams and cultivated some land while leaving woods and open spaces. They packaged and sold seeds, and were incredible craftsmen, producing beautifully simple and symmetrical products, said Charlotte. Will said part of their religious worship was to dance—to whirl and turn, losing themselves in the movement. Nearby Holy Hill was a place for outside worship. Because Shakers acknowledged animals as creatures of God and treated them respectfully, “It would be good to be a Shaker animal,” he said.

Aine said she really liked learning about the Shakers “since we live in the same town where they lived.” She wrote: “Something that I will always remember about the Shakers is that it was founded by a woman named Ann Lee who spent time living in Harvard. Leading a religious group was a big deal for back then because women were not considered equals.” She thought it was interesting that they never married or had children and that most of them lived to be really old. “I will never forget their motto ‘Hands to Work, Hearts to God,’” Aine wrote.

As for what one might venture to guess Mr. Snell learned through his initiative in distance learning? Confidence in his video skills, an even greater appreciation for the Shaker landscape, and most of all that he wants a flock of chickens just like Charlotte Kemeza’s.

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