Teachers at the Crossroads

By Kathleen Barker, Education Department

In the spring of 1775, the towns of Lexington and Concord became targets, scenes, and symbols of actions that would ignite a war culminating in the birth of a new country. What happened to inhabitants of towns like these that were literally and figuratively “on the road to revolution” where local concerns and larger outside forces intersected? This July and August the Society offered two week-long workshops designed to help K-12 educators answer this question. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, our workshop, “At the Crossroads of Revolution: Lexington and Concord in 1775,” brought 80 teachers from 33 states (and the United Kingdom) to Massachusetts for an in-depth exploration of documents, artifacts, and landscapes associated with the beginning of the American Revolution.  

Group of 40 teachers in front of memorial at Lexington Green

Each week’s program began on Sunday evening at the historic Hartwell Tavern, where participants experienced Battle Road Heroes, a living history program that introduced the dramatic stories of people who lived along the crossroads of the Battle Road in April of 1775. The following day, Robert Gross, Draper Professor of Early American History at the University of Connecticut, led participants in an examination of life on the eve of the Revolution. He discussed what people were talking about; what they worried about; who the leaders were in the communities of Concord and Lexington and how they shaped public opinion; the sources of news and the places where people gathered to share it. Participants then had the opportunity to explore the Concord Museum, which holds an outstanding collection of artifacts related to life in Concord at the beginning of the American Revolution.

On Tuesdays we took to the streets of Boston with Bill Fowler, Distinguished Professor of History at Northeastern University and former director of the MHS. Building on the local concerns identified the previous day, participants considered how events in Boston were intertwined with those in Lexington and Concord. Our tour of the landscapes of revolutionary Boston included the Old State House, Boston Common, Old South Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, and Old North Church, where lanterns signaled British troop movements on the night of April 18, 1775. Our day concluded with a visit to the MHS where participants had the opportunity to meet and mingle with staff members while viewing original documents from the Society’s amazing collections.  

Mile Marker indicated 13.5 miles to Boston from ConcordBy Wednesday participants were ready to take a closer look at the first day of the revolution. We toured many different sites, including Lexington Green, Paul Revere’s capture site, and the North Bridge in Concord, as we focused on the actual events of April 19, 1775. Participants walked parts of the original Battle Road, now part of Minute Man National Historical Park, exploring eyewitness accounts recorded by minutemen British soldiers, and local inhabitants at various locales in order to uncover how the first few hours of the revolution unfolded. We also considered multiple perspectives through a visit to Munroe Tavern, part of the Lexington Historical Society. On the afternoon of April 19, 1775, the tavern served as the headquarters for Brigadier General Earl Percy and his one thousand reinforcements, as well as a field hospital for wounded British regulars, and interpreters within the tavern tell the story of the British retreat to Boston.

Activities on Thursday highlighted in the roles that ordinary people played in shaping extraordinary events, and the power that people had to effect change through the choices that they made. Historians Mary Fuhrer and Joanne Myers introduced the participants to documentary sources – local records – than can be used to research the lives of people living in Lexington in 1775. Through a series of hands-on research activities and a short writing workshop, participants chose a historical character from Lexington and examined their “choices at the crossroads.” Meanwhile, environmental historian Brian Donahue, author of The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord, immersed the teachers in the colonial landscape guiding them through a section of the farming fields and providing them with tools for “reading” and understanding the “land of the embattled farmers”. Our examination of the mixed husbandry land use of Concord’s small farms provided a way of understanding interrelated strands of environmental, economic and social history, and offered a unique perspective on the daily concerns and choices, and the long-term plans and patterns that were a crucial part of family and community life in Lexington and Concord.

Our setting for the final day of the workshop was the grounds of the Old Manse, a National Historic Landmark overlooking the Concord River. Here, MHS Director of Education Jayne Gordon led the teachers in a discussion the ways in which nineteenth- century Concord authors used Concord’s revolutionary legacy in their own efforts to end intellectual and cultural dependence on the Old World. After an intense week, the program officially ended with a leisurely stroll through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and the Alcotts are buried. We completed our workshop with a quiet, casual contemplation of the different kinds of independence that each author pursued at his/her own “crossroads.”

Here at the MHS, we are grateful to our wonderful partners for making this a fantastic experience for all who participated. We are also delighted to know that participants enjoyed their time in Massachusetts. As one teacher explained in her final evaluation, this was an “absolutely fabulous workshop of great value to me and my students. In the words of my students it was: ‘freakin’ awesome!’”.