Elementary school students in some Anne Arundel County public schools are learning how good they've got it — in other words, how many wake up in comfy beds to a ready-made breakfast, instead of beginning their day with daunting physical chores or, worse, wearing shackles.
Life for children in the 18th century was quite different than it is today, and fourth- and fifth-graders in Anne Arundel schools are using some 21st-century technology to learn the hard truth about families from that period.
Their stories are told in an interactive Web-based storybook, "Children's Lives at Colonial London Town," piloted in October in several county schools and now used as an instructional resource.
The storybook follows the stories of three real-life families in London Town, a 1700s trading port in Anne Arundel County just off the South River. Among the stories are that of a boy who often had to give up his bed to adult travelers who paid for a night in the family home; and another who was born a slave and was purchased by a local family.
The book — a multimedia presentation accessed through the website, che.umbc.edu/londontown — is a collaboration between Anne Arundel teachers and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Center for History Education, working with Historic London Town and Gardens in Edgewater. Rachel Brubaker, program administrator for UMBC's Center for History Education, said the project began in July 2008 as teachers were taking history courses at the college and came up with the idea. It was funded with a three-year, $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Teaching American History Grant Program, and extended two additional years through June 30.
Teachers crafted the storybook during their graduate course work with UMBC associate professor of history Marjoleine Kars and AACPS resource teacher Mary Davis. From artifacts and documents researched at London Town, teachers explored daily lives and chores of children.
"The teachers studied a lot of Colonial biographies over the course of two years and worked at London Town," Brubaker said. "In writing a children's book, it meant that they also had to do the research because it was a nonfiction work."
The book was designed by UMBC's New Media studio and it includes maps, a timeline, activities and re-enactment photos.
Brubaker said the original idea was to create a book that the teachers could use during class, but they later opted for a digital storybook that could be accessed worldwide, and used in and out of the classroom. She said a hardbound book will be made for classrooms and media centers in county schools, and a full Web application is scheduled to be created.
The book details how the General Assembly created London Town, an area four miles from the Chesapeake Bay, in 1683, and how the area soon became one of the Chesapeake's largest seaports. People there traded rum, tobacco and wine, but London Town also became a slave trading port.
The story chronicles the lives of children from the Holland Pierpoint family, who in the early 1700s helped operate the family business and performed the type of chores that would be foreign to modern-day children.
At the center is one of the Pierpoint children, 6-year-old Larkin, whose daily chores including grinding corn into meal for his own breakfast.
The book also details the experience of the Hill family, which declared bankruptcy and left London Town for the coast of Portugal in the mid 1700s. But some children in the family remained in London Town and were essentially raised by their newly married 15-year-old sister.
Then there's the story of Jacob, a 7-year-old slave who lived with a family of innkeepers who also employed indentured servants and convicts.
Terry Poisson, coordinator for social studies instruction for the school system, said the book was introduced for county teachers during a workshop series at London Town. She said the system plans additional workshops for media specialists.
"There is a great challenge getting social studies taught at all at the elementary level," Poisson said. "By reading an account of actual children that lived during the Colonial era at London Town, you are reading primary source documents, birth records and death records of actual people that existed. Through reading about this era from secondary sources, kids are able to surmise what was life like for those children."
Heather Giustiniani Peddicord, a Germantown Elementary School fifth-grade teacher, was among those who worked on the project, saying she and other teachers wrote stories with student engagement in mind.
"We knew what they would love hearing about all the gross things about daily life, such as bedbugs, smells, et cetera," Giustiniani Peddicord said. "The book has served as a fantastic foundation to their understanding of Colonial life for children of different classes during the time period."
Lisa Robbins, director of education at London Town, said the release of the book has already given Anne Arundel students a feeling of connection to London Town — a phenomenon that she's seen during field trips.
"We launched the website, and within a matter of weeks, I had schools coming and kids getting off the bus saying, 'Oh, that must have been the house where Larkin lived,' " Robbins said. "That only deepens and expands the experience they have here.
"We have so many schools that want to come here, but either can't afford it, can't afford the buses or simply live too far away," she said. "This interactive website is reaching a much broader audience."