Building Historical Perspective
What is the full story of Jamestown? This is the question that 4th graders at Two Rivers Public Charter School in
Washington, D.C., explore each fall.
Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English
settlement in the Americas—and one of the first
places that European, Native American, and African
people encountered one another—provides a rich
context for students to explore the problem of
perspective. The historical record is rich with written
histories of the Europeans, but lacks the perspectives
of native people and Africans. With this problem in
mind, 4th graders grapple with how to get into the
minds of people who lived more than 400 years ago
and tell their stories.
During this ten-week project, students not
only develop a deep understanding of historical
content related to Jamestown, but they also learn
critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are
transferable to any subject or context. The challenge
of reinterpreting history from primary and secondary
sources, which are often incomplete and conflict
with one another, requires students to weigh mul-
tiple perspectives and make reasoned choices about
how best to reconstruct the story.
Using a common approach to problem solving,
students follow five basic steps: First, they identify
what they already know about the problem. Then
they articulate what they need to solve the problem.
After that, they generate ideas for solutions and later
develop background knowledge about the problem.
Lastly, they arrive at solutions using a design process
that incorporates regular critique and revision. By
following this simple approach to problem solving
in daily classes and in longer-term projects, students begin to see these steps as a habit of mind for
approaching any problem they may face.
Last year’s Jamestown project illustrates this
problem-solving process in action. Students began
by identifying what they already knew about
Jamestown, noting that Jamestown is in Virginia
and that Virginia was one of the early colonies.
However, students also recognized large gaps in
their knowledge. They articulated that they needed
to know more about who was involved, what major
events took place, and how they would find out
more. After reading a short history of Jamestown,
students were specifically interested in learning more
about the African and Native American cultures that
were part of the settlement.
Next, they moved to define pathways to a solution,
deciding that they would ultimately represent the
lost voices of Jamestown in a musical format. From
there, students dove deep into building their background knowledge by reading primary sources, such
as excerpts from John Smith’s autobiography, and
secondary sources like children’s books from the
perspective of Pocahontas. Students also examined
artifacts from all three cultures. They culminated