Dressed in period clothes, Oakhurst Elementary School fifth graders lived as early pioneers last week at the Wawona Pioneer Village.
“The village is part of Yosemite National Park’s Early Living Program, a program that submerges children in a 24-hour experience living as the pioneers did long ago,” explained Robin Ward, fifth grade teacher. “The children study early pioneers in school learning about the history of California in fourth grade and U.S. history in fifth.”
Ward said each student is assigned a notable character of that time, including John Muir, and well known Native Americans.
“They get to know their characters by researching and writing reports about what their lives were like and learn how they felt about Yosemite,” Ward said. “The students are grouped into early pioneers, services (hotel, restaurant, shop owners), artisans, and transportation personnel.”
During this 24 hour period, the students dress and act as their character, along with parent volunteers, and lead teachers who are also in character.
The pioneers go through rotations from Buckshot (the only stagecoach driving ranger), prepare their dinner exactly as they would long ago, learn to chop wood, do period-type activities called a skills station, and a role task.
Each student pioneer is walked into a meadow in the park and asked to draw what they would do with it. This exercise is most important because it leads up to a town hall meeting where all of the characters, along with their independent interests, debate what to do with Yosemite.
The artisans may want to build places for them to stay while they sketch, the early people want it to be left alone, transportation wants to build roads to make money transporting people through, the hotel owners want big hotels and people like John Muir and Galen Clark want to limit access and preserve the meadow.
“This massive debate is so incredibly rewarding to watch,” Ward said. “I love how my students knew so much about their characters, were able to present their point of view, and object to what they didn’t believe in.”
John Muir, played by Elijah Mills, stood up to the Washburn Hotel owner, played by Colton Franklin, telling him “You are wrong sir - you don’t want to build places to stay - you want to cut down these trees, sir ... admit it.”
Galen Clark, portrayed by Michael Ward, followed with “That is right ... I want to protect these trees, don’t cut them down for your own greed.”
Emmanuel Solis, playing Chief Tenaya added, “If you build all this stuff, you will be killing my family.”
“During the evening we had a glorious dinner made solely by the students, and enjoyed a period-style barn dance, square dancing the night away,” Ward said. “The smile on their faces were ear-to-ear, and they looked like professional dancers.”
Ward said she is continually proud of how her students step up to amazing challenges.
“It is so rewarding to see their growth, and they took their roles so seriously,” Ward said.
Assisting and participating in the overnight experience were Colleen Lehigh, Darryl Mills, Nina Reed, Cathy Garcia, Nicole Star, Marcella Burrough, Caroline Franklin, Christine Ferbrache, Todd Tuggle, Matt Mills and Jacob Lehigh.
- Oakhurst Elementary School Correspondent