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Using Mount Vernon to Teach with Biography

The desire to share the biography of George Washington inspired the preservation of Mount Vernon in the 19th century. Today, Mount Vernon is carefully preserved and interpreted to reflect Washington’s life, accomplishments, and legacy. The estate, library, and website provide biographical details of George Washington, as well as the over 300 people who at Mount Vernon in the 18th century as well. The use of biography in teaching can help humanize the past and give students identifiable connections to history.

Teaching with Biography Tips

Biographies allow students to see the influence and impact of historical events that can otherwise be hard to grasp. Varying biographical stories between those of well-known historical personalities and those of lesser-known people can help strengthen a student’s understanding of a time period.

Using biographies in the classroom can help students develop historical empathy by providing them the opportunity to think about life from another perspective. Individuals who lived in the past become humanized when their life events are put into narrative form.

Biographies can be found in a variety of places, not just books and written sources. Allowing students to explore a person’s biography through a video, a series of images, a song, a collection of objects, or a location can change the methods students use to make connections and meaning.

Students can write, or reflect on, their own autobiography through an examination of their lives in the context of current events. How does their life reflect larger events in society? How have they influenced the world around them? What events have shaped their communities?

Reading biographies of the same historic figure written in different time periods can provide opportunities for students to use historical thinking skills. By comparing multiple accounts of the same life story students can analyze for bias and author influence on historical interpretation. It is a great entry point to teach historiography and show how history is interpreted and reinterpreted over time.

Biography at Mount Vernon

Few historical figures have more biographies than George Washington. His life was full of accomplishments, achievements, and opportunities to make his mark on major historical events. Mount Vernon showcases Washington’s military and political achievements, but also invites people to explore other aspects of his biography through his roles as surveyor, farmer, slave owner, scientist, businessman, friend, family member, and mentor. These biographical narratives help students gain a better understanding of a person who is often only seen as a general and president.

Have your students ever read a landscape as a text? At Mount Vernon, we present the mansion, grounds, and outbuildings as George Washington’s autobiography because he cared so deeply (and wrote so specifically) about the placement of the many trees, paths, and buildings on his plantation. The virtual tour of Mount Vernon provides students who cannot visit Mount Vernon a chance to explore the landscape and draw conclusions about the story George Washington wanted to tell about his life through his home and estate.

The enslaved men, women, and children who worked and lived at Mount Vernon have important stories for students to learn and know about. When students learn about individuals who were held in bondage, they can build empathy and better see the impact of the institution of slavery on peoples’ lives. Through the use of archaeology, oral history, and written sources such as farm reports and letters, Mount Vernon has created 19 biographies of people like William “Billy” Lee the valet, George the gardener, Kitty the dairymaid, and Doll the cook to better understand the lives of enslaved Virginians in the 18th century.

Martha Washington provides a fascinating biography that can help students understand the lives of wealthy women in the 18th century. Her wealth and social status make her rare among women of the time, but her biography illuminates the challenges and opportunities of her class and gender.

Many individuals lived at or passed through Mount Vernon as guests and friends. Their stories provide biographies of lesser-known 18th-century people and shed light on the Washingtons’ lifestyle, priorities, and character. People in the Washingtons’ circle, such as James Craik and Elizabeth Willing Powel, have biographies that intersect with many of the people who lived and visited Mount Vernon.