On May 22, Marguerite Hahn Elementary School transformed into a gold rush town, complete with 85 fourth graders dressed as miners and pioneers, ready to stake their claim. The living history day, started about twenty years ago by Shawne Kearney, Assistant Principal of both Hahn Elementary and Monte Vista Elementary School, is meant to demonstrate the months of instruction the students received about the California gold rush in a hands-on way.
“Each year we add something new and it gets bigger and better,” says Kearney. “This year I just acted as a consultant and the fourth grade teachers, Nikki Diaz, Austin Brooks and Krista Dunbar, took over and did a great job. I have students that come back to me and say ‘I’ll never forget gold mining day! It was one of my best memories!’ All these kids that come back, they remember this day.”
Each student chooses a persona for the day and develops a background of their person including where they came from, how they came to California and what they are doing here. They choose a period appropriate name and clothing for their person.
“They had to make up a miner’s profile about themselves like their miner’s background and which route they traveled,” says Kearney. “For example, did they go around the horn or did they go through the Isthmus of Panama or did they go over land. They learned all about the different ways people migrated to California and all the dangers and hardships that occurred along the way. So when they created this miner’s background they had to include all that knowledge.”
The night before gold rush day, the walls in the fourth grade classrooms are covered up (with the help of 15 parent volunteers) and are transformed into six different stations that the students visit the next day. In “The Diggins,” students can use a hula hoop to stake their claim in the back gravel parking lot where they can mine for gold, which are gold-colored rocks that have been hidden there. Alternatively, they can pan for gold in a metal bucket filled with sand and water with real gold mining pans. In the Assay office, the student miners’ gold gets weighed and they receive one “miner buck” for every 50 grams of gold.
“We have parent volunteers running all these stations who are all in character and in costume as well,” says Kearney. “Then we have Flea Bailey’s Saloon where the kids can have sarsaparilla (root beer) and learn how to play blackjack which is a really good math game. Sometimes while they’re in the saloon they are called to do laundry. They have to leave the saloon and do some chores. With old-style washboards they wash out article of clothing and hang them on a line.”
The “bingo barn” station reinforces vocabulary words the children learned such as “prospector,” “mother lode” and “Eureka.” The definitions are read and the students find the appropriate word on their bingo game card. In the post office station, the students pick up their mail (letters their parents wrote prior to gold rush day) and the students write a return letter.
“When they went to the post office they received letters, they read them, and then they had to write letters back,” says Kearney. “So there are a lot of academic standards built into this day. It’s not just fun and games – there actually is math involved, and language arts, and so on.”
Students are especially excited to see staff members “arrested” by town sheriff Austin Brooks and thrown into the Hahn Jail, another station in the makeshift gold rush town where prisoners have to plead their case.
The day after gold rush day, students can visit the trading post where they can trade in their miner’s bucks for toys “from the future” – various items donated by parents.
“The kids are so excited and some really get into it with dressing up,” says Kearney. “It was so much fun. It was such a delightful thing to see the kids so excited. They will learn more about the gold rush experiencing it like this. Plus the lessons that teachers did ahead of time were very hands-on and interesting – much more than reading it out of a textbook.”