Why America Is Free

Teaching the history of Colonial America

By Delia Corrigan

Jeff Amberg

Upon graduation, only one in 10 U.S. high school seniors can pass the test a person must take to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. As the population of the nation becomes increasingly diverse, the social studies curriculum has taught less and less about the defining and unifying history of the founding of this nation and the heritage shared by all Americans.

Many parents of school-aged children are aware of this, especially if they try to engage their children in discussions about important people and events during the founding years of America. Helen Taylor is no exception. When Sallie, her daughter, was in the fifth grade and studying South Carolina history, she became increasingly aware of what the students weren’t learning. “I began quizzing my carpool about the founding of America, and nobody knew what I was talking about. They were either not being taught, or they were being taught but not retaining it. The fact that this was true of my children’s school, which was excellent, made me look further, and I learned it was a nationwide problem.”

In 2006, the Taylor family visited Washington, D.C. to see the monuments and other points of national interest, and on that trip Helen saw a brochure that caught her eye. She immediately called the number and was connected with the directors of Values Through History, the organizing nonpartisan, educational nonprofit that developed a curriculum entitled Why America is Free

“Right then I asked these ladies if they’d come to Columbia and give a presentation to our school. They arrived within a month. The more I learned about the curriculum — and compared it to others being taught in social studies — the more passionate about it I became,” says Helen.

“These ladies” are Donna Passmore and Jan Smulcer. Donna has a background in litigation and constitutional law, education, history, dramatics, research, script writing and multimedia production. Jan’s background includes business, fine arts, advertising, marketing, research, script writing, graphic design and multimedia production. Put those talents together, and 10 years later an interactive curriculum is born which is gaining momentum across America. 

Though Why America is Free is designed to be a six-week interdisciplinary immersion into the 18th century, there is so much information included in the program that it can last longer, as teachers pick and choose from the wealth of materials. The only textbook that comes with the curriculum is a book used in the social studies class. In math, science and other subjects, teachers use their own textbooks and the curriculum supplies lesson plans, DVDs, and other materials to create connections that not only apply the skills being taught but also illuminate new aspects of 18th century America in ways fascinating to the students. 

The social studies book follows Jed, an adolescent whom they meet during the French and Indian War. Jed grows up as his story continues intermittently in the book so the students grasp the time span, and they follow him to the Constitutional Convention where he has been chosen as a delegate from Virginia. The students are immersed in the turmoil of the times, as well as the excitement of being a participant in deciding how to use the scientific, enlightenment rationality to create a nation unique from any other, tracing back to concepts of ancient Greece. They create a Book of Heroes — a character analysis of outstanding people they study in each subject and the principles of these men, women and children along with the sacrifices they made. In conclusion, the students determine which heroes they want to emulate. 

In science, they learn how Benjamin Franklin invented the lightening rod by making “bottled fire,” a battery in today’s term. In music, they make Franklin’s favorite musical invention, the glass armonica, and in computer science they play a virtual glass armonica. In math, word problems use every grade-level math skill to discover aspects of life in the Revolutionary period that children really want to know. In art, they paint 18th century self-portraits, and along the way they recreate Charles Willson Peale’s museum of natural history, complete with plant and animal classification. Each child “discovers” a new species and must figure out the best habitat and then create a model. The museum’s crowning achievement is the discovery and assembly of a life-sized reproduction mastodon skeleton. 

A highlight of the program is Patriots Day. At this point, the students find themselves right in the middle of the American Revolution. Throughout the school day there are activities, debates, and an assembly allowing students in other grades to participate. The role-play continues at a special evening session lived out in character by candlelight. The students, teachers and other interested parents participate in huge decisions while the future of the new experiment, America, hangs in the balance. Will each person have the courage to stand on his or her convictions, at great personal cost? They decide whether to accept or pass on the challenge. “We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” If they take the challenge, it’s on to the forging of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Helen’s efforts to spread the news of this curriculum all over South Carolina has landed her on the governing board of Values Through History. Several years ago, Helen gave Darnall W. Boyd a folder describing the curriculum. “Mr. Boyd called me and said, ‘This folder has been on my desk for quite some time, as other things have come and gone. I’ve interviewed people about it, read articles, read books and watched the news. I know for a fact after researching this for more than a year that people don’t know our history. I’m going to help you with your project,’” Helen says.

The cost of purchasing Why America is Free is $4,250, plus shipping. Because of the Darnall W. and Susan F. Boyd Values Through History — S.C. Fund, any South Carolina School that adopts the curriculum, which includes onsite training by the creators, receives $2,000 from the fund to go toward the cost of the curriculum. 

In 2008, this grant proved crucial for Dawn Smith, lead teacher of the new magnet school at Lonnie B. Nelson. The Academy for Civic Engagement is one of the only magnet schools in the nation based on government, economics and service learning. As Dawn started this program with no extra funding for materials or teacher training, she learned about Why America is Free from the Richland Two social studies coordinator, and soon she was introduced to Donna and Jan. Through additional fundraising, the school was able to purchase the curriculum, and of course, the training. 

“As the students learn about the colonial period and the patriotism,” Dawn says, “they learn the value of respectfulness. Understanding what happened so long ago is important for kids. Knowing history helps us learn from past mistakes and understand how much we have in common.” She noted that when the students see the customs that were brought over from England, such as the taking of the tea, the language of the fan, they love it. The manner of greeting people with a curtsey or bow and addressing each other in a formal way noticeably improves overall respect and behavior. 

“I love this curriculum because the children love it,” she says. “This is not simply reading a textbook; it is hands-on. If students are not strong readers, they can pick it up through the oratory, dance, science or math. The students learn what it cost for our nation to be born. They see that freedom is not free, and they are inspired to be participating citizens in America today. By the end of the experience, they understand the major issues of the time from diverse points of view, and the world-view of the founders.”

Today, Why America is Free is used in public and independent schools across South Carolina, as well as many other states. In Columbia, schools currently employing this program include Brennen Elementary, Imagine Columbia Leadership Academy, The Academy for Civic Engagement, Ben Lippen School, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School and Sandhills School. Values Through History is tracking the success of the program, and the statistics are encouraging. Middle and high school teachers report that they can see a pronounced difference in their students who have gone through the Why America is Free program. 

 “This curriculum, really, is the best I’ve ever seen,” Helen says. “Because so much of the information about the founding period was removed from the curriculum in the late 1950s, much of this material is new to teachers and parents as well. It is crucially important to teach the fundamental concepts and history of our founding to our children, not only accurately, but also in a way that they value and retain it. No self-governing nation can survive without educated, informed and civically involved citizens. Our children will soon be those adult citizens. In this increasingly global world, they need to know who we are as a nation, the world-changing civic principles our government is based on, and how we came to be.”

Outside objections to Why America is Free seem to stem from the fact that it’s new and different, and often teachers are afraid it will be difficult to implement. “After all, many teachers weren’t given the opportunity to learn much about this defining time in America’s history, either,” Helen says. “Also, there needs to be an enthusiastic teacher who will encourage the whole team to embrace it. Once they give it a try, they say it is the most organized, easy-to-use curriculum they’ve seen. It becomes a highlight of the year. Another obstacle may be the cost, which is why the generous fund set up by the Boyds has made such a difference in so many students’ learning. It is truly life changing.” 

In 2010 Walter B. Edgar, acting as director for the Institute of Southern Studies, highly endorsed this curriculum in a letter. “To Educators and Parents of Upper Elementary School Children: Over the past 30 years, I have watched with dismay as 18th-century America has received less and less attention in history and social studies textbooks. The background to the American Revolution and the reason why the colonists decided to take up arms against Great Britain are frequently ignored or glossed over … Similarly, discussion of the debate over the Constitution and the first decades of the new republic tend to be cursory — at best … It is with a great deal of pleasure and enthusiasm that I endorse the Why America is Free Curriculum.”

Why America is Free is building a strong momentum in South Carolina, spreading an enthusiasm about studying and celebrating the founding of America. 

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