Hands-on learning, high achieving

FORT MILL -- Deborah Sampson was an 18-year-old girl who posed as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War.

She might even have shared a biscuit with Robert Henry Hendershot, a 13-year-old drummer boy who wanted to be part of a bigger cause.

We know this because fourth-graders at Gold Hill Elementary School say so. Last year as third-graders, they absolutely aced the social studies portion of the PACT -- Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test -- which South Carolina third- through eighth-graders must take each spring.

Not one of them failed to meet state standards in that subject, a feat very few classes accomplish. Not only that, they think social studies is fun.

Take Christopher Columbus, for example.

"Before, I thought there was nobody there when the explorers came," said Cameron Crosby, 9. "I thought about why they made Native Americans slaves and then said, 'Get out. This is our land now.'"

Sarah Macphee, also 9, was impressed with Eliza Lucas, who became an early female entrepreneur selling indigo-dyed cloth.

"Slavery is a lesson in friendship because people treated them badly," Sarah said. "We should make sure it never happens again."

She was referring to Gold Hill Elementary's Life Skills program, which incorporates a different character trait into academic lessons each month.

Not only character skills, but various academic subjects are woven into one another at Gold Hill.

"We integrate subjects so they make connections," said third-grade teacher Wendy Cutchis. "If you have a student who likes math, you look for ways to incorporate math into the subject."

English/language arts is closely aligned with social studies through books. Robert Henry Hendershot and Deborah Sampson were real people whose stories were told in literature the children read last year.

They also read "South Carolina Weekly," a newspaper that follows state curriculum standards. When Sarah arrived in Fort Mill mid-year in the third grade, she knew nothing about South Carolina history. Her teacher gave her back issues to catch up. She scored very high on PACT social studies, said Ann Lamba, her third-grade teacher.

The children also research social studies subjects on the Internet, in books and in magazines. They take regular field trips to historic sites.

There's great excitement when it's test time, because they play one of the children's favorite games: Jeopardy. It's done on a computer interactive SMARTboard. Everyone wants to win Jeopardy.

Most of the school's third-graders scored excellently in all PACT subjects tested last year: 96.3 percent met standards in English/language arts, 97.1 percent in math and 95.7 percent in science, in part due to subject integration, the teachers speculate.

Lamba and other third-grade teachers attribute much of their success to study packets they carry home each time a new unit is introduced.

"The parents had to sign the packets," said teacher Della Runnels. "We stayed in communication with the parents so they knew what the children were studying and when projects were due and tests were coming up."

About 30 or 40 volunteers arrived at the school to celebrate South Carolina Day, where a cookie shaped like the state had brown sugar sand hills and chocolate chip mountains. At the Loggerhead turtle station, children guessed the number of marshmallow eggs in a jar. They played pin the tail on the white-tailed deer and got to play kickball if they answered a question correctly. School maintenance man Frank Munn even took his personal day to attend with his dance partner and teach the children to shag.

Each time they began a new social studies unit, the teachers filled a treasure chest with items typical of the period and characters the children were studying. The chest provided a hands-on adventure as the children donned period hats, groomed their hair with wooden combs and fingered quills that had served as pens.

Samantha Whitley liked the quills and the old-fashioned desks they used as students at Historic Brattonsville. She was impressed that the 13 stripes on the American flag represent the original 13 colonies, including South Carolina.

Harriet Tubman's role in the escape of slaves struck her. She found it to be a Gold Hill Elementary character lesson in cooperation.

"When the Civil War was over, the farmers helped them have a home and crops and enough food to feed their families," she said.

The children deemed slavery a compelling subject in character.

Berenice Ramirez thought it represented integrity because "some wanted to do the right thing and some people didn't."

Cameron considered it a lesson in courage because "the slaves had the courage to run from the white people even though they knew they could be shot."

Cameron found social studies important, "because we don't want history to repeat itself," he said.

Adam Patyk said it was a lesson in effort. "Like the PACT test. Just keep trying and do your best."