Michele Rzweski Copeland

History Is a Walk in the Park      

Aldie Mill, Oatlands, and Belmont Plantation: for many residents of Loudon County, Virginia these are just points on a map. But for the fourth grade students of Potowmack Elementary School, they are much, much more.

The students’ study of Virginia history was transformed into a learning adventure with a series of field trips that brought local history to life. Instantly, students’ walk through a park became a step back into time, as they retraced the path of Civil War soldiers and peppered their guide, a Civil War re-enactor in full uniform, with questions about the lives of the soldiers who camped there 150 years ago.

Michele Copeland, school librarian and one of the program’s architects, explained the significance of the local field trips, “Many of our students are new to Loudoun County and have never experienced its rich history or been made aware of the valuable agricultural heritage in western Loudoun. The project is designed to boost student awareness of the history that is literally around them, and give them a chance to record the history in their own unique way.”

By providing students with access to digital cameras and by including their reports in a printed book that each would take home, many of Copeland’s students became passionate documentarians.  The field trips, an honorarium for a local historian, digital cameras, and the costs of publishing the students’ book were all funded by a $5,000 Student Achievement grant Copeland received from the NEA Foundation.

But her journey to expand student learning didn’t stop there.

  • Throughout the creative process, students developed critical thinking and writing skills as they compared and contrasted historical events, drew conclusions, and interpreted ideas from different perspectives. Copeland used these written accounts to evaluate student learning.
  • Students learned about the contributions of African Americans and Native Americans to the development of Loudoun County’s agricultural society.
  • With each field trip, the students learned new terminology as they explored the county’s historic sites and listened to “first-hand” accounts of the events that shaped the region.
  • Back in class, local children’s author and historian, Gene Scheel spent two days with students, offering his perspective and helping them write their own histories.  

Results vindicated this investment.

  • Students passed the Virginia History end-of-grade exams with flying colors, and in some teachers’ opinions, many might not have passed without the first-hand immersion in Virginia history.
  • Students made local history presentations during PTA and school faculty meetings, which resulted in increased parent involvement in the school and expanded PTA support that translated into additional financial support. The Target Foundation awarded an $800 field trip grant to defray expenses.
  • Information about the program is being shared further, on the school’s website and through Copeland’s national work as a grants writer.

“The great success of the project was in seeing the students get excited about history,” Copeland concluded. “Students learned about historical events that actually took place in Loudoun County. They became familiar with historic sites that are here in the county and that they could visit again in the future with their families.”