Learning about Washington

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – George Washington’s face may no longer hang in nearly all of the country’s classrooms as it once did.
The story of the nation’s first president and Revolutionary War hero – long known as the “father of his country” – may not have the prominence in today’s curriculum as it had in the past.
But as Americans prepare to celebrate another President’s Day holiday on Monday, two days before Washington’s birthday, school teachers still emphasize the virtues of the country’s earliest leader.
“I still believe America sees him as the epitome of what an American citizen should be,” said Elaine Watson, who teaches eighth-grade history at New Albany Middle School.
Michael Farrar, who teaches fifth-grade social studies at Nettleton Upper Elementary, said Washington is an important part of his course and that he focuses on his life off and on over a period of several weeks.
“The story of George Washington begins with the French and Indian War and goes through not only the American Revolution but the Constitutional Convention and the presidency,” Farrar said. “You can span the entire founding generation by teaching his life.”
Farrar has a particular passion for incorporating George Washington into his classes and has three pictures of him among the many historical photos that hang in his room.
That interest has been stoked by his having twice attended the George Washington Summer Residential Teachers’ Institute.
The institute is hosted by George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, Museum and Gardens in Virginia. Educators live on the grounds of Washington’s former estate, work with scholars, take tours and work on projects.
“Our goal is to make sure George Washington is a fundamental part of the history they are teaching,” said Nancy Hayward, acting vice president for education at Mount Vernon.
Mississippi became the first state to send teachers to the institute in 1999, Hayward said, noting that the reason for the annual event is that Americans aren’t learning as much about their first president as they once did.
Back when Hayward’s parents were in school in the 1930s and ’40s, there was a portrait of Washington in every classroom, “and he was considered the nation’s greatest hero,” she said.
That began to change around the 1960s, she said. For one, history courses became more inclusive and expansive. They taught more than “the dead white guys” and covered a longer stretch of time.
Meanwhile, standardized testing has emphasized English and math, while science, technology and engineering also have gained importance. History, meanwhile, has generally become more secondary in schools, Hayward said.
“Washington is one of, if not the central figure in establishing the country we live in today,” she said. “How can we understand where we are today if we don’t understand the fundamental ideas that formed our nation, and if we don’t understand that events that brought us here today?”
Last week, New Albany Elementary kindergarten teacher Tiffany Thrasher introduced her students to the Founding Father through art and writing projects. Her students made pictures of Washington using paper plates, cotton balls and construction paper. They wrote facts about him, such as him being the first president, him being featured on the dollar bill and quarter and him being an honest man. They also read a picture book about him.
Mooreville Elementary third grade teacher Sandra Curbow said that during her 36 years of teaching, she hasn’t changed much about what she teaches about Washington. What has changed, she said, is technology that allows students to do more independent online research about the president instead of relying on textbooks and encyclopedias.
Watson said that in her eighth-grade class at New Albany, she also uses Washington as an example to teach the students about integrity.
“I make George Washington human to them so they have that same respect for him as did those who were taught in earlier generations, that same respect for his moral character,” she said. “Even though he didn’t do everything morally correct, he placed great emphasis on moral behavior.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com