Aromatic History

By Eve Pranis

"We try to bring our study of colonial America to life by engaging students in actually 'experiencing' those times," reports fifth grade teacher Arna Caplan of Golden, CO.

Students sign up early in the year for a variety of colonial era "apprenticeships," which are facilitated by teachers and parent volunteers. "The previous year's class always plants or adds to the school's colonial herb garden in the spring," explains Arna. "So in the fall, incoming fifth graders who had signed up for farming and apothecary apprenticeships took charge of harvesting and drying the herbs after researching their respective professions," she notes. In anticipation of writing an "herbal" (a description of herbs and their uses) students set out to learn as much as possible about individual garden herbs and their uses in colonial times.

"The students loved discovering interesting historical uses of herbs," says Arna. For instance, they learned that herbs such as mullein were used as bandages, rosemary was thought to "calm naughty children," and sage used to color grey hair. While some of the young apothecaries made safe herbal teas or experimented by using aloe for sunburn, others pursued more research. For instance, students learned that, because there were no anesthetics or antibiotics during the Revolutionary War, people relied on certain herbs for medicinal purposes. Other students made "dream pillows," which were herb-stuffed calico pouches to promote restful sleep. These were offered for sale to parents and the community in the apothecary shop of a simulated colonial town.

In the spring, the farming group started more seedlings and tended the perennial herbs, so the cycle could continue the following fall. "The students developed a real appreciation for the difficulties of day-to-day colonial life and the vital role of plants through this project," explains Arna. "It did seem that this concrete experience helped enhance their appreciation for the people/plant connection," she adds.

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