Fourth graders step back in time

Leslie Silverman

Over 100 students from Piedmont Valley Elementary School took part in this year’s Living History program at the Keystone Museum in Keystone.
Fourth grade teacher Dan Avery  said his students were “so excited to be here.” Avery said the Living History Program deals with South Dakota history and is a great way to tie into South Dakota history.
His students couldn’t wait to come to the Keystone Museum.
“The clothes are a big one for them. They love it,” he said.
He says they remember and get a kick out of how the Holy Terror Mine got its name. They also are in awe when they crowd into the little school.
“Kids always wonder how they did this,” he said.
He said the teachers that run the program do a wonderful job.
“This is South Dakota history at its best. It’s walking back in time, it’s real world relics, this is how it was, this is how they learned,” he said.
This year they rang the bell for the first time, a treat for Avery himself.
The field trip is in line with the South Dakota history standards that teachers must teach. The trip is combined with a visit to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, but according to Avery, the Keystone Museum is the real highlight.
“You don’t always learn everything from a book. You can feel this and think about what kids endured.  We have specific things we need to teach, but this is where the rubber meets the road so to speak,” he said, adding the students would “remember this for a long long time.”
Jessica Bernhagen, also a fourth grade teacher at Piedmont Valley Elementary, echoed Avery’s sentiments about the program.
“This is the cherry on top. It’s what we’ve been working for as students go through the South Dakota history standards of the social studies curriculum. It’s a fun way for them to live it,” she said.
She notes that she has former students who ask to come back when their siblings are attending.
Both Avery and Bernhagen could not imagine what would happen if the program were to disappear. Neither of them know of anything even close to this type of immersion experience in the area.
“It would be detrimental if the program went away. It’s an amazing experience for kids, even parents. It’s a special way for them to step back in history and become characters and live in that world,” Bernhagen said.
Avery echoed his colleagues’ comments.
“Bonita (Ley) is a walking encyclopedia. She has kids zoomed in on her,” Avery said, saying he would be “saddened” if the program went away.
While the program is still strong there are concerns about the dwindling number of teachers who volunteer for the program. Post COVID-19 there have only been two retired teachers volunteering,   Connie Prautzsch, who taught in the school up until 1973 and Ley herself. In the past there had been about a dozen volunteers.
Ley began the Living History school program recruiting teachers from the Black Hills Retired School personnel, formerly known as Black Hills Retired Teachers Assoc.
The month-long event is usually held in May and teaches fourth graders throughout the Black Hills what learning was like during the early 1900s.
Students experience the 1900s curriculum, dress in period clothing, write with chalk  on miniature blackboards and perform lessons students would have during this time period. Students also learn the history of the 1900s, tour the museum and go on the historic Keystone walking tour.
With a dwindling number of retired teachers participating, locals such as Keystone Museum director Casey Sullivan have stepped in to fill the gap. However, the need for retired teachers to continue the program is high.
Brynlee Mackay, who is almost 10, was visiting the museum for the first time with her fourth grade class. She said she was most excited about dressing up for the experience.
Ten-year-old Cali Kuyper enjoyed dressing up and learning what games children played during recess.
“It’s different,” said Kuyper who said she “really liked” the experience.
The classroom portion of the program began with the teacher formally introducing herself and the kids formally greeting the teacher with a collective “good morning.”
This was followed by the  Pledge of Allegiance.
Prautzsch read  her class a poem by Joyce Kilmer called “Trees.” Students listened attentively to the descriptive prose that remark about nature, God, and poetry itself.
Students then dug into math lessons which many remarked were “much easier” than the math they currently learn. Ley’s class also began with introductions and the pledge.
Her students were then hastened into an adjoining room for a show and tell of various objects that children in the 1900s would use around  the  home.
The Living History program runs through the end of May with visits from various fourth grade classrooms around the region.


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