Civics Lessons Come to Life for Chatham Fourth Graders

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Each year, all fourth grade students in Chatham County Schools visit the Pittsboro courthouse to learn about the county’s history

Khayden Foxx, 9, role plays as a judge during the field trip.

By Dolly R. Sickles | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Siler City Elementary School teacher Katie Black says her fourth grade students are as smart and savvy as they are fun and curious. So she knew they would enjoy their Sept. 29 field trip to the historic county courthouse in downtown Pittsboro. “I want kids to connect to what we’ve been learning in class about the branches of government and bring it to more of a local scale, to see where the magic happens,” Katie says.

The Chatham County Historical Society has worked with the school district since the 2013-14 academic year to put history into context through immersive, hands-on learning opportunities for nearly every fourth grader in the country. (Next year, third graders will get the chance to visit since the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction moved local government, civics and history to that curriculum.)

Students sit in the courtroom to learn the history of William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham.
Chatham County Historical Society volunteer Ed Bronson performs as William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham.

The kids split into four groups to rotate through different activities. Some filed through artifacts and gallery rooms staffed by Chatham County Historical Society volunteers Patty Walters, Connie McAdamsAllen Wilson and Jane Gaines. Another volunteer, Ed Bronson, surprised everyone with his reenactment as William Pitt, the first Earl of Chatham.

The students became animated during a mock trial led by Pittsboro Mayor Cindy PerryDan Perry and Pat Stucke. Inside the courtroom, students claimed the roles of plaintiff, defendants, jury, bailiff or the judge in the live-action civics lesson as they litigated a fictional civil case of a family of bears suing an intruder who ate their porridge and climbed into their beds.

A group of students standing in the museum, learning the history of early Chatham settlers.
Chatham County Historical Society volunteer Cindy Schmidt tells the students about early Chatham County settlers.

Khayden Foxx, 9, was the first judge of the day. “I got to say, ‘Order in the court’,” he says, “and I got to wham the hammer.” Khayden is an astute young thinker with an empathetic mind and kind heart. He’s a fan of Spiderman and believes in the adage, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ As the judge, Khayden supported the jury’s finding of Goldilocks’ guilt. “Goldilocks wasn’t using her manners,” he says. When asked if history would’ve been different if people would’ve used manners, Khayden responded in the affirmative. “Nowadays, people are being mean to each other,” he says. “It’s easy to use your manners to get along. All you’ve gotta do is say please and yes and thank you.”

Drew Hawker’s turn as the bailiff was equally contemplative. “The bailiff swears people in,” the 9-year-old says with confidence. “If you don’t swear them in, they might do it again.” He, too, supported Goldilocks’ guilty verdict, “because it’s not common sense to go into someone’s house without permission and break things. She ate all the food, almost broke the bed and broke a chair.” Drew says it’s important to study history “so if it happens to you when you’re older, you know what to do.”

Alijah Alexander, 9, says the most interesting thing he learned was in the museum leg of the tour led by volunteers Cindy Schmidt and Leona Whichard. “People used to sell rabbits,” he says with incredulity. When asked if he could catch rabbits to sell, he laughs and says no. But Alijah is a student with good conversational knowledge of history who would have done some things differently. “I would’ve told the people who started slavery to quickly end it because there was another way,” he says. “I would’ve told the people in the North and South to not fight because it was going to take many lives and we’re going to lose many important people.”

As a product of Chatham County Schools, Katie remembers her own fourth grade field trips: Pilot Mountain and Beaufort. “I just wish we’d done more local field trips because it is really important for kids to know the history of where they live and the places around them – not just North Carolina in general.”

The Jordan-Matthews High School alumni knows the importance of home – she came back after graduating from Appalachian State University. “My family is here,” she says. “Plus, I like the area. There are good schools, good kids.”

Katie’s homecoming to her rural roots brought her fresh perspective and bright ideas back to Chatham. “History, in general, is pretty important,” she says. “The kids like learning about it. We talk about a lot of different things, and I try to connect it to current events to make history more interesting. Otherwise, it’s just an abstract concept and they’re not going to get it.”

Since Katie’s days as a Silk Hope Elementary School fourth grader, Chatham County Schools shifted its focus to local history. It came as no surprise to Katie that her students loved acting in the courthouse portion of the day, but their enjoyment of looking at and touching everything in the museum room, trying to figure out how the items were used, was unexpected. “I also really loved how it opened up a lot of great discussion of how drastically things have changed throughout the years and how things may even change in their lifetimes,” Katie says. “It kind of blew their minds.”

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