Rock Hill students bring history to life

When mid-May rolled around, with testing over and with three weeks still left in the school year, the fifth-grade teachers at York Preparatory Academy in Rock Hill were faced with a challenge. How could they keep their students engaged and learning through the end of the school year?

The answer, said teacher Susan Hargrove, was in something on which York Prep focuses: project-based learning.

On Thursday, the fifth-grade hallway was alive with activity. Each classroom was dedicated to a different era in United States history, with students playing the part of teacher as kindergarten through fourth-graders were taken on tours, watching skits, re-enactments and presentations.

“Projects are way more fun,” said Katie Stewart, a fifth-grader who led groups of students through the exhibits. “There’s no zoning out.”

In the Civil War classroom, students dressed as slaves, abolitionists and plantation owners. They held models of cotton gins made out of popsicle sticks and factories made from cardboard boxes and paper towel tubes.

One student, Austin Hale, told the visiting students that he was a slave who escaped his “harsh” life to move to the North.

“The North and the South, they did not agree so the southern states seceded,” Austin said. “ ‘Secede’ means they got separated.”

Another student, Micah Oliphant, wearing a long, gray beard, said he was Frederick Douglass and talked about his life as an escaped slave and his work as an abolitionist.

“I was pretty good at writing,” Micah said, answering questions in character.

In other classrooms, students took on topics such as the Great Depression, World War II and the space race.

Each class picked its era and the students got to pick whatever topic interested them within that era, Hargrove said, which made them even more engaged because they selected topics that interested them personally.

For fifth-grader Judge Wilson, that topic was Pearl Harbor, which has fascinated him since he was a fourth-grader. His project included diagrams of the attack.

In another room, there were large replicas of a covered wagon and a train, made out of stacked desks and big pieces of paper. Students dressed like pioneers headed West, explorers, gold miners, conductors, cowboys and even cattle, who would load up in the train, bound for “the slaughterhouse in Chicago,” according to student Dylan Read, who got to play the part of the conductor.

“It’s fun because you get to pretend to drive a train and you can blow the whistle,” Dylan said.

The combination of letting the students pick their topic, do something hands-on and teach younger students all contributed to the students’ palpable enthusiasm about their “Walk Through U.S. History” event, Hargrove said. They will definitely repeat the event next year, she said, and they’re already discussing ways to make it even better.

“Learning is messy and it’s loud and it’s active,” Hargrove said, adding that students’ knowledge about their topics was deep thanks to this project-based approach. “When they leave, they know it.”