Teachers bring ideas back to LI from Colonial Williamsburg

(L-R) Wendy O'Neill meets teacher Erin Grieco at (L-R) Wendy O'Neill meets teacher Erin Grieco at John F. Kennedy School in Great Neck on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. Photo Credit: Kristy Leibowitz

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When Erin Grieco's fourth-grade students return to John F. Kennedy School in Great Neck next month, their classwork will be infused with blasts from the past: 18th-century American artifacts, costumes, letters, and even a small replica of an archaeological dig site.

Grieco, using ideas she gleaned in July from a new teachers institute at the Colonial Williamsburg living-history museum in Virginia, said she will use those as tools to enliven both social studies and literacy.

"It gives a different element to the learning and makes them [students] a lot more engaged," she said.

Grieco was among 20 elementary school teachers from New York who participated in the institute co-hosted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College. The program, which covered teachers' expenses, was made possible by a $1 million donation from Abby O'Neill, 86, of Oyster Bay -- a granddaughter of financier John D. Rockefeller Jr., who helped found and underwrite Colonial Williamsburg's restoration.

The foundation has been running teaching programs for some 25 years, but this is the first time it partnered with the Reading and Writing Project to combine social studies and literacy education. The program is expected to run for the next five or six years.

The donor's daughter, Wendy O'Neill of Manhattan, spoke on her behalf. She said her mother served on the boards of both the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Teachers College.

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"I think she saw that there was room for them to cooperate," the younger O'Neill said.

Her parents "believe strongly in community service and being good citizens," she said, "and so I think American history and Revolutionary history teaches us about the origins of citizen-based society."

O'Neill met with Grieco last week to talk about the program, and pored over photographs, books and the participants' packed itinerary.

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"She's very enthused, so it's just wonderful to see that," O'Neill said of Grieco, who only began teaching the American Revolution last year.

In six days at the historical village, participants met with interpreters who acted as local Colonial-era residents and discussed how to use those experiences in the teachers' history and literacy lessons.

They also studied primary source documents such as news clippings, letters and one Williamsburg resident's will.

Participant Amy Brennan, a literacy coach at Pulaski Street Elementary School in Riverhead, works with fifth- and sixth-grade students and their teachers on reading and writing skills. She looks forward to including social studies instruction in her arsenal of teaching tools.

She recalled one excursion to a middle-class Williamsburg carpenter's house, where the teachers learned about the meals he would have eaten and the entertainment he would have hosted. Afterward, they wrote narrative stories, using his home for inspiration.

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"It was powerful," Brennan said. "Now you're able to bring that back to your school to demonstrate to your students how to write a historical fiction piece."

Bill White, a vice president at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, noted that many elementary schools test only math, science and reading skills because of the federal government's emphasis on those areas.

And, White said, while high school teachers are often subject-matter specialists, few elementary school teachers focus their studies on one field.

"Teaching some of the controversial things about American history, making sure that everyone in the classroom feels like it's their history, that they're represented in that -- those can be tough things to handle," he said.

Debra Rodgers, principal of the Phillips Avenue School in Riverhead, attended the institute to learn how best to support her teachers. Now, she plans to make sure they tap into the online resources that Colonial Williamsburg provides -- from biographies and old newspaper clippings to instructional videos.

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"I don't think for my school I'll ever buy another social studies textbook," she said.

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