Beth Wyman prepared these Heritage Elementary School students for rough times ahead.
The fourth-graders would have a whole host of trying circumstances to look forward to, including potentially deadly conditions working in a hard rock mine and equally dangerous prospects as they made their way through untamed wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. What’s more, the group would have to make decisions with significant economic and personal consequences. Namely, they’d have to pick a site to pan for gold, a choice that could mean a quick fortune or a rapid bust.
These students would deal with the same difficulties that faced the thousands of settlers who streamed into the state in the mid-19th century, imports from other states and other countries looking to get rich quick.
The similarities only went so far, of course. Beth Wyman, an educator whose “Time Travel Field Trips” seek to teach history through immersive instruction, didn’t haul the Heritage Elementary out to the wilds near Leadville or make them work long hours in a cramped mine.
Instead, she recreated the circumstances through a carefully constructed curriculum, one that included plenty of primary source material and a number of immersive activities. The students pored over black-and-white pictures from the 1860s, they played roles in mini-plays designed to give the mood and feel of the era and they panned for gold with plastic pieces of ore in lieu of the real thing.
It’s an immersive approach that Wyman’s refined over nearly two decades.
Wyman, whose teaching career started in 1995 at Heritage Elementary, has turned a love for history into an independent educational mission. She travels to schools across the state to lead her independent history lessons, classroom activities that seek to incorporate state academic standards while also engaging students.
Her lesson plans include specialized forays into Colorado history, as well as lessons focused on American pioneers, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
“I want two things: for the kids to love history and I want them to go home excited about what they learned,” Wyman said on a break during her lesson at Heritage. She wore the grey cap of a Western miner from the 1800s and used terms like boom, bust and drill steel. “I think this kind of learning is the most effective way of teaching history, but it’s the least used because it requires so much prep time from the teachers.”
The approach relies heavily on immersion. Wyman encouraged the Heritage fourth-graders to use terms from the era and take on roles of real historical figures. Students read excerpts of letters written by real settlers; they gazed at images of early Denver, Leadville and other Colorado cities on the screen; they worked in groups to separate the simulated gold ore from the soil in the style of an authentic prospector.
For Wyman, the enthusiasm of the students at her former school made all the hours of preparation and research worthwhile.
“If I create the program and come to schools to teach it, the kids get the benefit and the teachers get the benefit,” she said. “I do about six months of research. All of this is real. They’re learning an enormous amount of content and it’s all standards-based.”