Social Education 57(6), 1993, pp. 337
1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Recruiting American Colonists among Eighteenth-Century Europeans: A Social Studies Exercise for Middle School Students

Michael D. Evans
Francis C. Hammond Junior High School
Alexandria, Virginia
Few adolescents can imagine a world without telephones, Nintendo games, or Mazda Miatas. Fewer still can relate to the bygone cultures and societies of centuries past. How, then, can we motivate 7th graders to study U.S. history? One approach, which has proven especially successful in teaching Colonial history, is letting the students act as recruiting agents for the thirteen original American colonies.

To set up this instructional exercise, each student randomly selects from a hat the name of one of the colonies. Students then receive an assignment sheet requiring them to research certain subjects related to their colony such as its founder, date founded, reason founded, location, climate, major religion, major crops, cities, rivers, mountains, natural resources, and special features. Students are encouraged to use a number of resources in their research including reference books, slides, filmstrips, and travel brochures.

Armed with their research results, students should begin preparing a creative, entertaining presentation designed to persuade other students (posing as European citizens of the early 1800s) to come to their colony. It is up to the students to decide how best to accomplish this goal. The only requirement is that some artistic means of demonstration, such as signs or posters, must be used in the presentation.

To give students extra experience in public speaking, I arrange for them to make their presentations to another history class. Students in the audience receive a one-page checklist to use in critiquing each presentation. Criteria include interest, creativity, and persuasiveness. For example, student critics are requested to comment on whether they would relocate to the colony based on the presentation. In addition, students are asked to rank the presentations in terms of overall quality. The critiques serve the dual purpose of challenging the presenters and keeping the audience actively involved in this learning experience.

I also videotape all presentations. I find that these videotapes facilitate discussion of the assignment and serve as helpful examples for subsequent years' classes. After the presentations, I display all the posters for a month in the hall outside the classroom, where they invariably draw comments from students and faculty throughout the school. Each year I keep a few posters to show as models in upcoming years. And each year the posters and presentations get better.

Over several years, students have consistently surprised me with various ingenious ways of recruiting new colonists. Many have dressed in Colonial fashion; some even imitated a Colonial dialect. Others have produced humorous Colonial "infomercials." Some have displayed Colonial foods and products-Virginia tobacco, South Carolina rice, indigo, and cotton-hoping to entice potential newcomers with promises of good living and lucrative farming opportunities. Students representing Pennsylvania or Maryland have emphasized their colony's religious tolerance, while Connecticut agents have stressed democratic rule. All have tried to dispel negative rumors about Native Americans and convince their audience that the indigenous populations are not dangerous, but friendly.

Student audiences always leave the classroom commenting on how well the "recruiters" performed. Many remark about the realism of the presentations. Student recruiters generally agree that the assignment is difficult but fun. They say they have learned a lot, not only about their own colony, but also from the presentations of others. Scheduled early in the year, this activity serves as an excellent springboard into future social studies activities requiring oral, artistic, and cooperative assignments.

With a little variation, this activity can be adapted for use in any social studies class. In a geography class, for example, recruiters could encourage travel to another state or country. Similarly, students of civics or recent U.S. history could act as European, African, or Asian travel agents trying to convince people to come live in our country. Presentations could include references to history, government, and the democratic system. Taking this learning strategy a step further, why not actually make contact with students from other nations via computer modem or videodisc? Whatever the application, this simple classroom activity never fails to generate motivation and enthusiasm for learning among middle school social studies students.