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Experiential Learning Offers Students Opportunities to Learn about the Lenape

Written by Ellen McMichael, Grace Na, and Julie Rink ’88, Third Grade Lead Teachers

After being given an opportunity to review the third grade curriculum, we felt that there was an opportunity to expand our knowledge and teaching about the Indigenous People local to the Germantown Academy area as well as the rest of the country. We were thrilled to receive a Kast Grant, a professional development opportunity offered to GA faculty, to do just that. This allowed us the funding to dig deep into research on the lives of Indigenous People in the United States, both in the past and the present. We then utilized the knowledge we gained in our research to develop an engaging and culturally-responsive curriculum to share with our students. 

Because the Lenape were the first to live in this region, we decided to kick off the year with activities that would enable students to gain an appreciation for the Lenape people. We endeavored to build understanding through off-campus field experiences that had the students sitting in a traditionally-made longhouse, learning about how the Lenape hunted, games children played, how the Lenape fished and hunted, and more. We also invited a member of the Lenape Nation,Carla Messinger, to share her stories and artifacts with our students to further develop their cultural insights. 

Our commitment led us to develop a day-long, on-campus event that became known as Lenape Day. It was held in The Preserve, Germantown Academy’s six acres of unbridled natural habitat, which created a compelling canvas that encouraged students to wonder what the land may have been like hundreds of years ago. The hands-on and immersive nature of the activities encouraged a personal connection to the material the third graders were learning. Our students smelled the smoke from the fire as they gathered around it to listen to indigenous myths; they whittled their own sticks; and they visualized Rainbow Crow, a character from an Indigenous myth, and created an artistic representation of this story. Students played Lenape games, and they floated down the Wissahickon Creek in canoes. All the while, the beating of drums could be heard echoing throughout The Preserve.

What we initially dreamed up as a third grade team became a collaborative endeavor with so many people lending a hand, and we are grateful for their support. Our intrepid associate teachers Janine Bowers, Raquel Green, and John Bernhardt, led students through the multiple station rotations, replete with activities! Sue Szczepkowski, Head of Lower School, taught students to handle a pocket knife and how to whittle their own sticks, and Troy Holiday ’01, the Upper Elementary science teacher, helped us shove off shore while canoeing on the Wissahickon. Lower School librarian Sarah Letts read the Rainbow Crow myth, and Lower School art teacher Keely Jennings shared indigenous art and led a Lenape ribbon art project. Upper Elementary music teacher Jodi Bohr 1760 provided drumming and game-playing experiences. Allison Sasson, Assistant Head of Lower School, and Amanda Mitchell, Early Childhood Coordinator and Admissions Office, helped ensure that the activities ran smoothly. We also want to give a special shout out to our maintenance team who set up the fire ring and took care of readying all of the canoes!

Students reflected upon Lenape Day in their journals, and what they wrote was truly inspiring. One student noted, “My favorite part of Lenape Day was the canoeing. At first, I was a little scared (I’m not going to lie). But I said to myself, ‘I can do it.’ I got to paddle. It was outstanding. And that was my first-time canoeing. That is a great memory.” Another student shared, “I honored the Lenape. Lenape means ‘first people’. Lenape make so many things with their hands. I think it’s cool the Lenape share a lot. That is how kind I want to be someday.”

After months of discoveries and  explorations, the students shared their learning by creating a presentation for the Lower School Thanksgiving Assembly. Third graders provided interesting facts about the historical Lenape nation of this area, and read aloud the following Land Acknowledgement: “…we affirm the aspiration of the great Lenape Chief Tamanend, that there be harmony between the indigenous people of this land and the descendants of the immigrants to this land, ‘as long as the rivers and creeks flow, and the sun, moon, and stars shine.’

For the third grade teachers, it was gratifying for us to see a true collaborative effort throughout our study of the Lenape people.  We felt supported in our endeavors to help students recognize the significance of the Lenape people, both past and present. This experience was impactful and rewarding, and we plan to offer this immersive opportunity every year going forward. It is our hope that the valuable lessons learned throughout this study will stay with the students for years to come!

Check out more photos from our Lenape Day experience here on smugmug.