When I was in 2nd grade — just days after dinosaurs roamed the Post Road — my Burr Farms Elementary School class took the Jennings Trail tour of Westport.
We hit all the historical sites: Green’s Farms, where the 5 Bankside farmers first settled. Church cemeteries, where all the cool bodies are buried. Tiny Machamux Park, named by a young Sachem called “Chickens.”
The tour was led by Bessie Jennings, the 9th-generation Westporter who created it. To my 2nd-grade eye, she seemed at least 110 years old. She was probably 40.
Generations of elementary school children have since taken the Jennings Trail tour. Most recently, it was 3rd graders. (2nd grade is now devoted to learning calculus, and compiling genome sequencing data.)
I say “most recently” because a while ago the tour morphed into a field trip to Wheeler House, the Westport Historical Society‘s very historic home. Each May, over a span of 2 weeks, 500 3rd graders toured the parlor, dining room, bedroom, kitchen and barn. Specially trained parent docent volunteers (wearing white-collared shirts, long black skirts and black shawls), and Staples High School senior interns (dressed normally), helped out.
At the end of the tour each child got an authentic piece of pound cake, freshly made by a volunteer parent. (That gift ended a couple of years ago; a couple of kids with allergies could not eat pound cake.)
This year though, the WHS field trip has been dropped too.
Long Lots Elementary School prinicpal Rex Jones explains that the social studies curriculum is being revised. Educators are still deciding which grade — K through 5 — is the best place to teach the history of Westport.
I hope a place is found for the WHS field trip. The parent volunteers were trained to not simply give answers, but to get children thinking about a different time, in a place still standing.
Ideally, the Jennings Trail tour will return too. There is so much to see and learn in Westport — tiny Adams Academy schoolhouse on North Morningside; stately Green’s Farms Church, a major meetinghouse in colonial days; the bridges that connected two sides of an important river.
Teaching kids modern-day skills is very important. But so is teaching them skills so they can examine the past.
Otherwise, they can never move forward.