Fort Worth students back for 5th city tour

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, April 29, 2010

When two motor coaches pulled up to the Cairo Museum at the Vicksburg National Military Park Wednesday, 47 adolescent girls streamed from one, 37 boys from the other.

Asked if the grouping was intentional, Tara Forrest, the students’ American history teacher, said with a smile, “We’ve worked with seventh-graders for a while now. We’ve figured out what works best.”

The Fort Worth County Day School students are living their history lessons in Vicksburg this week, going back to a time when trials were held at what is now the Old Court House Museum, wealthy civilians lived in gracious antebellum homes and nearly everyone took shelter in caves during Civil War shelling.

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After getting off the buses, the students gathered first beneath the Cairo’s flagpole, then at the national cemetery’s. They watched respectfully while eight of their classmates raised the flags under the direction of park Chief of Operations Rick Martin and seven of the girls sang the national anthem. Then they fanned out to check out the cemetery and get rubbings from the stones on Union soldiers’ graves.

This is the fifth year that Forrest has traveled with students. Student field trips are less common now due to tighter budgets and school schedules. Forrest said she believes the trips are far more enriching than classroom studies.

“Kids need to be actively involved in what they’re learning and make connections,” she said. “The better the connections, the more they learn and remember what they’ve learned.”

Along with Forrest and her students, three parent chaperones and seven faculty and staff are in Vickburg for the four-day lesson.

The agenda includes visits to the Riverfront Murals, Tara Wildlife Preserve and Linden Plantation and tours of historic homes. The students will stage a trial in the Old Court House, eat a plantation dinner on the museum grounds, hold a debate on slavery and listen to a Civil War musical review at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center.

“It’s experiential education, not textbook education,” said headmaster Evan Peterson. The 1,110-student school provides a class trip annually for each grade, the cost included in tuition and activity fees. “Teach kids by living — that’s my philosophy of education.”

Each student has had a part to play or presentation to make, based on research conducted at school. Some have spoken at battlefield monuments, some at the cemetery, some have portrayed lawyers or jurors, some soldiers. They’re allowed to use note cards, but nothing has been scripted, Forrest said, not even the trial.

Brianna Beckman, 13, was one of several students dressed in period costume who spoke Wednesday about the cemetery. One thing she learned, she said, was that a camel is buried somewhere on the grounds.

Brianna said studying the war and seeing all the graves in the cemetery has convinced her that “it’s kind of scary. If there was a war in Fort Worth, where I live, I’d be scared.”

While no one in her family is currently in the military, Jefferson Davis is a distant relative, she said.

A “Time For Kids” survey revealed that only 15 percent of students choose history as their favorite subject, but Forrest’s students get to see beyond the usual names and dates.

“I love it,” said 13-year-old Caleb Braswell. “I love learning about what happened a long time ago. My favorite is ancient Roman history because they didn’t have the same kind of stuff that we have. They had more sickness, and they didn’t have the advantages that we have.”

Caleb said while in Vicksburg he has learned more about the city’s importance as a Civil War battle site, its fortifications and how its people adapted during the siege.

Kennedy Stoball, 13, also made a presentation on the national cemetery. “I like history a lot because you learn about people who lived a long time ago, about your ancestors. Then you can go out and create history yourself.”

Not every day is living history and the fun of travel. There is still studying, research and essays to write.

“A trip like this makes it more special,” Kennedy said.

Forrest will herd the kids back on the buses and head back to Texas Friday afternoon, but hopes to come back next year.

“In an economy of cutbacks, I hope living history is not something that’s cut back,” Forrest said. “I love Vicksburg — I love the people here who are so gracious and so giving. I love bringing my kids here to experience that, even more, maybe, than the history.”