A Teacher’s Perspective: Martha Washington

by Kim Greer

My experiences with Mount Vernon as a teaching resource began in 2005 when I first led a group of middle school students on an educational trip to Washington D.C. We visited Washington’s home and were fascinated by life there. I continue to visit Mount Vernon every other year with students, but as their online resources have grown, so has my ability to access and utilize those opportunities for distance learning for my classes.

In 2016 I was honored to be a part of the inaugural year of the Slavery at the George Washington Teacher Institute (GWTI). It is not an exaggeration to say it was life-changing. I am still in close contact with several other teachers and the context expert from that week and continue to learn from them about issues in education, and teaching about slavery in the classroom. I am a better teacher because of the week I spent there being challenged to face hard truths and taught ways to share that ability with students.

In early 2018 I decided to apply for a Life Guard Teacher Fellowship at Mount Vernon because I was thrilled at the prospect of getting to study on a richer level on site using a collection of resources that cannot be found at any other institution. My only concern was determining a topic to research. My inspiration came from listening to students in an 8th grade accelerated class trying to choose a subject for National History Day projects that year. They desperately wanted to tell stories that were not well known in order to honor those unsung heroes. The longer I worked with those students as they conducted their own research, I realized that I wanted to share the story of Martha Washington. It seems the general public identifies with her as an older, grandmotherly figure who had suffered the death of children and eventually her beloved husband and someone who had known some great privilege as well. She was that person, but so much more.

The Washington Library's Reading RoomI spent two weeks last summer utilizing Mount Vernon resources including staff experts, onsite artifacts, and the incredible library and its staff to develop a lesson titled, "Did Martha Washington Influence the Revolutionary War?" I am currently in the process of finishing that lesson plan and continue to pilot some of the compelling questions and primary sources in my classroom that I will use in the final product.  

This lesson intends to challenge students to seek a deeper understanding of many of the figures in American history that they feel familiar with, especially women who often have a larger influence on the development of policy than they have previously been recognized for. While considering the impact of women in the Colonial and Revolutionary War eras, the goal would be that they also seek out greater awareness of others who have been excluded like the enslaved population of Mount Vernon and other influential figures. The incredible support I have received from the staff at Mount Vernon have made my Teacher Fellowship an inspirational experience, and I appreciate each opportunity given to increase student knowledge of our nation’s First President AND First Lady.

The Teacher Fellowship has influenced and enriched my classroom in many ways. I have a greater understanding of the need to tell a broad perspective of stories from an era, not just the abbreviated version that most students learn in elementary school. For example, if students were asked about Mrs. Washington’s attendance at camps during the Revolutionary War, they could probably come up with a mention of Valley Forge, but none would know that she was actually at all eight encampments. The travel required for this would have been at best uncomfortable, and often quite dangerous. Students immediately have more interest in and respect for her when they consider what that effort took. By telling her story, and that of the enslaved population at Mount Vernon, a more diverse population of students feel a connection to those pivotal events in American history. One team of students this year even developed a National History Day project about Martha Washington. The 2019 theme was “Trials and Triumphs”, and they felt that she had certainly experienced a wide range of both throughout her life.

The intended outcome of this lesson is to challenge students to seek a deeper understanding of many of the figures in American History that they feel familiar with, especially women who often have a larger influence on the development of policy than they have previously been recognized for. While considering the impact of women in the Colonial and Revolutionary War eras, the goal would be that they also seek out greater awareness of others who have been excluded like the enslaved population of Mount Vernon and other influential figures. The incredible support I have received from the staff at Mount Vernon have made my Teacher Fellowship an inspirational experience, and I appreciate each opportunity given to increase student knowledge of our nation’s First President and First Lady.

Kim Greer teaches 7th and 8th grade at Nevada Middle School in Nevada, Missouri.

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