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EdNet Learning Lab: Reese Teacher Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Virginia in August? When you get to be the first Reese Teacher Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, you bet Virginia in August is okay! The previous two summers I was able to attend two different residential teacher institutes at Mount Vernon. Those were amazing opportunities to learn about George Washington, colonial America, the revolution, the development of the government of the U.S., and the struggle over historic interpretation of difficult topics and times. Besides the academic growth and questioning, being a participant provided myself and the other teachers with the opportunity to actually live on the grounds of Mount Vernon, to see and feel the land George Washington lived on. As a result of these experiences, I decided to apply for one of the Teacher Fellowships, in order to study a topic in depth and then develop lesson plans.

While at Mount Vernon in the summer of 2016, I noticed a sign on the roadway out in front, pointing in the direction of Gunston Hall. I learned at this point that Gunston Hall was the name of the home of George Mason, who I refer to in my AP Government class as “the most important Founder you’ve never heard of.” I teach about Mason as the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights; I knew that he had attended the Constitutional Convention, yet in the end didn’t sign the document. But I didn’t know he was, essentially, George Washington’s neighbor. I thought, “Well that must have been awkward when Mason worked against the Constitution.” That initial thought formed the basis of my research proposal.

As a Fellow, I have the opportunity to spend three weeks researching and writing lesson plans based upon my proposal- and these plans will end up on the website for George Washington’s Mount Vernon, alongside a wealth of other tools and lessons available for teachers. This summer I spent just a week and half, and was giddy over the prospect of actually getting to read and research in a way I don’t often get to do in preparing for class. I had access to the facilities of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. Correspondence between Washington and Mason, documents recording Mason’s statements at the Virginia Ratifying Convention, and letters between other founders about both Washington and Mason helped me access these two men in a way I hadn’t seen them before. It also made me wonder how we are going to do historic analysis in the future- tweets and emails just don’t seem to have the same depth of thought that hand written letters do.  The primary sources- their letters revealing their thinking, emotions, responses, fears and questions- gave a fuller picture of them and the times they were living in. The library resources were incredible, and the opportunity to visit both Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall allowed me to see the space and place each man created and occupied.

My research, and subsequent lesson plans, will use primary documents to trace the relationship of the two. They worked closely together in the years leading to the revolution, with Mason often the philosophical voice and author. They had close personal relations, with Mason appointing Washington in his will as one of his representatives to divide up his holdings. Mason was a frequent guest at Mount Vernon, and prior to some key actions the two men worked together to provide a united front and a coherent argument. Yet when Mason worked actively and passionately against ratification of the Constitution in Virginia, the friendship indeed strained. Letters between the two men continued, but they take on a tone of “it’s all about the business.”  I hope that this research, when completed, will give teachers and students a greater sense of political struggles as nothing new- even between individuals who had spent decades working together.

And for all of the other teachers- put a summer residential institute at George Washington’s Mount Vernon at the top of your list for next summer. Because I arrived at Mount Vernon a few days before the final institute, “The Model Citizen: George Washing and the Founding the U.S. Government”, I latched on to most of the lectures and activities for the week. This included an evening tour of the U.S. Capitol- yahoo! Applications will be available in November, and include a range of topics, from Martha Washington and women of the 18th Century to Slavery in Washington’s World.

Teresa Osborne is entering her 33rd year as a teacher at Reynolds High School, Troutdale, Oregon. In the spring of 2017 she was selected as the first Reese Teaching Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.