Authentic Learning: Student Expedition to Gettysburg

Thirty-eight US History students, under the tutelage of teachers Dennis Edmondson and Rachel Olson, participated in an expedition to Gettysburg to study this epic battle of the American Civil War.

Fought during the first three days of July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most crucial battles of the Civil War having occurred at a time when the fate of the nation literally hung in the balance. Often referred to as the “High Water Mark of the Rebellion”, it was the culmination of the second and most ambitious invasion of the North by General Robert E. Lee and his “Army of Northern Virginia”. The Union “Army of the Potomac”, long the nemesis of Lee’s army in Virginia, met the Confederate invasion at the Pennsylvania crossroads town of Gettysburg. Under the command of Major General George Gordon Meade, the Union army fought with a desperation not always seen before on other battlefields. Despite initial Confederate success, the battle turned against Lee on July 3rd, and with few options remaining to him, the general ordered his army back to Virginia. The Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg resulted not only in Lee’s retreat to Virginia but an end to the hopes of the Confederacy for independence.

Mr. Edmondson has hosted this field study for the last twelve years. As an expert on the subject, Mr. Edmondson was able to bring to life the realities of war and the vigilance required to protect our nation. As a result of this expedition, Picket’s Charge, Maine’s legendary Civil War Hero, Joshua Chamberlain, the Gettysburg Address, the human cost of war, have all become very real and meaningful concepts to students who participated in this trip. The student expedition to Gettysburg provided students with an authentic experience that not only increased their knowledge and understanding of the Civil War but helped develop a profound perspective of the world in which they live.

The school does not hold a monopoly on authentic learning experiences. There are many ways students and families can participate in authentic learning. Within thirty miles of our school district, there are many places of interest that people can visit to learn a great deal on a variety of subjects; it can also be lots of fun. A few examples are:

Eagle Island State Historic Site-South Harpswell Nestled a few miles off the coast of Maine, Eagle Island State Historic Site receives about 6,000 visitors each season who tour the summer home of North Pole Explorer Admiral Robert Peary. Purchased in 1881 for $200, the island provides a perfect perch for Peary’s summer home that overlooks Casco Bay and surrounding islands. Panoramic views of ocean scenery, squawking seagulls, and fragrant flowers offer guests a unique opportunity to live a day in the life of the famous 1900s explorer. The island is void of any mechanical devices and from the moment visitors arrive, one gets the sense that Admiral Peary and his wife, Josephine could be sitting atop the library’s roof watching people explore corners of their island getaway. Josephine cultivated beautiful gardens that featured foxgloves among other colorful flowers. Bureau of Parks and Lands staff tend those same gardens today.

Bradbury Mountain State Park is a wonderful place to spend a day or afternoon exploring trails, taking in the magnificent view from the summit, or enjoying a picnic under a canopy of trees. One of the original five state parks, Bradbury Mountain was acquired by the Federal government in 1939. Situated on Route 9 about halfway between Portland and Lewiston-Auburn, the park attracts visitors who enjoy picnicking, hiking and camping on its 800 acres of forested land. Bradbury Mountain is the only state park in southern Maine to offer shared-use trails for horseback riders, mountain bikers and snowmobilers. Snow shoe rentals are available. Sculpted by a glacier, Bradbury Mountain is the park’s most outstanding natural feature. Today the park’s forest is home to a wide variety of plants and animals. Fall is a busy time at the park when visitors watch migrating hawks and eagles ride the thermals and enjoy the views of fall foliage from the summit. (Spring is best time to watch hawk migration, fall much less so.)

Fort Popham is a semi-circular granite fort that was never completed, though construction began in 1862 for use during the Civil War. Modifications were made and the fort was used again in the Spanish American War and in World War 1. Historical records conclude that fortifications, probably wooden, existed here and protected the Kennebec settlements during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. It was nearby that the English made their first attempt to colonize New England in 1607.

Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park is a five minute drive from the center of Freeport’s bustling shopping district, and as visitors approach the park, marshes and open fields provide a tranquil transformation back to nature. In 1969, this area of more than 200 acres was given to the State by Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence M.C. Smith of Freeport. The park contains varied ecosystems, including climax white pine and hemlock forests, a salt marsh estuary, and the rocky shorelines on Casco Bay and the Harraseeket River.
The park’s signature residents are the ospreys who nest on nearby Googins Island. An interpretive panel on the trail explains the life cycle of this magestic, graceful bird which summers on the island and makes its annual trek to South America each fall. Visitors who participate in a nature walk with the Park Naturalist can view the baby birds on their nest through a high-powered lenses and learn that these birds mate for life.
The popular Casco Bay Trail carries visitors along Maine’s legendary coast to a point where the surrounding islands of Eagle, Counsin and others are described on an interpretive panel. After a discovering the trails, visitors can enjoy picnics under a canopy of oak trees or a group barbeque is possible at the park’s new shelter area. Loon conservation license plates paid for the construction of this new facility and groups may rent the shelter for a day. Guided Nature Programs are offered in this beautiful natural setting. These one hour programs may include walks, short talks, and activities.

Bowdoin College Museum of Art is an excellent museum located on the Bowdoin campus and is free to the public.

Portland Museum of Art is another excellent museum. It is open Tuesday-Sunday and is free on Friday evenings.

The expedition to Gettysburg was an excellent learning opportunity for our students. I encourage students and families to plan their own authentic learning experiences by visiting one of the many places and sites of interest located in our part of the state. It’s a great way to spend time together, learn together, and have fun together.

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