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Using Mount Vernon to Teach with Place

Place is a unique primary source. A visit to Mount Vernon provides a full sensory experience for visitors who explore the grounds, buildings, and gardens. From the furnishings in rooms and art on the walls, to the plants in the gardens and fence-lined walking paths, place-based experiences can be achieved through field trips or recreated using online tools paired with complementary primary sources.

Teaching with Place Tips:

One of the biggest advantages of using place as a primary source is that it can combine object analysis, document analysis, and image and map analysis with landscape and building analysis to draw broader conclusions about a location. Students who are strong in different types of primary source analysis can work together to draw conclusions about place-based sources.

It can be difficult for students to grasp how place can be used as a primary source. Introduce the practice with the analysis of a contemporary space students are familiar with (a classroom, a school auditorium, a bedroom, et cetera) to help them build the skills needed to transfer observable evidence into conclusions before analyzing a historic place.

When visiting a historic house, battlefield, or other site engage students in active inquiry about the location as source material. Being on site provides a unique opportunity to measure out distances, note light levels at different times of day, feel the size of a space, and even take in the smells and sounds of the area. Ask students to observe using all five senses and encourage them to approach a space multiple times from different perspectives (homeowner, guest, enslaved person, child, male, female, et cetera). What evidence and supporting material can be used to inform their conclusions about the space from these observations and different perspectives?

Recreating places based on source materials can aid students better understand and interpret the time period being studied. A simple shoebox diorama, a computer generated 3D rendering, or a transformed classroom space based on evidence that has been analyzed can help students think about history in a spatial way, like an exhibit curator.

Field trips are not the only way to utilize place as a primary source. Virtual tours, such as the Mount Vernon Virtual Tour, can also be used to introduce students to historic sites.

Analysis of historical places can happen anywhere. Every place has a past and evidence exists that can be analyzed to draw conclusions and create interpretations of that past. Elements of the landscape, street signs, buildings made out of different materials, and street usage are all examples of evidence that can be used to inform students about a place they can access close to home. Ask students to draw a conclusion about when your school was built by analyzing it as a historic place.

Place at Mount Vernon

George Washington never wrote an autobiography, but he spent much of his adult life building Mount Vernon into a place that uniquely reflected his interests and priorities. Washington was directly involved in the planting, building, and landscaping of his estate during periods when he was absent from Mount Vernon (primarily the Revolutionary War and his two terms as President). Students can use the knowledge of his deep involvement paired with rich documentation to analyze available information about the estate and key rooms in the Mansion, such as the library, cupola, or the New Room, to draw conclusions about George Washington.

In addition to the records kept by the Washington family, guests at Mount Vernon, such as Samuel Vaughan, Edward Savage, and Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz created maps, paintings, and written descriptions of the buildings and landscape during their visits. These sources are useful to scholars in their attempt to recreate 18th century Mount Vernon. Additional sources used by experts have included analysis of historic structures and archaeological discoveries. Combined, these sources help to transform the modern Mount Vernon into the 1790s interpretation visitors experience every day.

Historic places carry with them indicators of social structures and delineations of class, gender, and racial barriers. At Mount Vernon, a white fence separates the public from the private side of the estate. During Washington’s time, this fence tacitly communicated where people of different social standings could go.

George Washington himself understood the importance of analyzing place. His first career, as a surveyor, required him to go to unpopulated areas of the colonies to measure them, describe them, and sketch them. He became quite adept at identifying the value of the lands he surveyed based on the observations he made. He used these skills throughout his life as a plantation owner, an investor in land, and as a military leader