McLean High School students are making history at Sully Historic Site.
Each year students at McLean take part in Project Enlightenment, a program in which they recreate a day in the life of 18th century America. They adopt and exhaustively research historic associates of the founding fathers and then bring their findings and talents to local historic settings. They become statesmen, philosophers, scientists, artists, and musicians who interact with each other and with an audience in a program that both entertains and instructs. It is an authentic, lively performance complete with period costume, music, dance and demonstrations.
Since the program’s founding 20 years ago, the students have portrayed more than 150 historical figures. Some are famous, like Thomas Jefferson and Dolley Madison. Others are less well known, like chemist Joseph Priestly, who befriended George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. Some are ladies or gentlemen farmers, doctors, actors and musicians who might have known Sully residents Richard Bland Lee and his wife Elizabeth. The students weave these seemingly disparate persons together based on common historic threads. They become detectives delving into nuances of history that are often lost in textbooks and glossed over by standardized testing.
At Sully, members of Project Enlightenment have presented an alfresco performance of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and have portrayed local gentry during Colonial Day, an annual celebration of rural life in Virginia. One group used historic astronomy equipment to help visitors enjoy and understand last year’s Transit of Venus. Some have stepped outside their usual interpretive time period to help with Victorian programs. And they’ll be back at Sully for Historic All Hallows Eve on October 26, 2013.
The program is a valuable opportunity for students to see the intricacy of the causes and effects that led us to where we are today. Studying history in this way goes far in making them life-long learners and knowledgeable citizens. Furthermore, they have the chance to “do well by doing good,” to quote Poor Richard, by teaching what they have learned to others in an environment that transcends the classroom in splendor, beauty, and stirring atmosphere. The program incorporates the concept of “virtue through good deeds,” allowing students to become teachers and impart their knowledge to others for the greater good, an undertaking that would have pleased the men like Washington who saw civic duty as an indispensable part of life.
These students adopt history as part of themselves, which in fact it already is. Be it a mock debate between Republicans and Federalists or a re-creation of Dr. Franklin’s experiments in electricity, the portrayal of what might be a dusty footnote in a history textbook becomes a living lesson with a permanence that all teachers desire.
The most surprising element of Project Enlightenment is that these students participate on a purely volunteer basis. They receive no grades or gold stars. They do it for the enjoyment of learning, a fact that I find most uncommon and immensely rewarding as their teacher. They are motivated by an academic spirit without pretense or insincerity. Consequently, the students fondly embrace their experience in a genuine sense – a sense of belonging to their characters, the era, our founding fathers, and the historical site itself. We believe that this is what an appreciation of our heritage is truly about.
In his 27 years as a physics teacher at McLean High School, author Dean Howarth has tried to push the envelope of “conventional” classroom strategies. He has long promoted the value of interdisciplinary education, feeling that his students will not only master but also appreciate what they learn in physics if they can see how it relates to the other fields of study. He is the sponsor of McLean’s Project Enlightenment.