CLARK, NJ - The “Clark Connects” History Camp was created with one goal in mind: to teach young students about history from alternating perspectives.
Bryan Lowe, a fifth-grade teacher at Valley Road Elementary School, founded the camp with the school’s principal, Joseph Beltramba. The two were inspired after attending a week-long seminar by the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute.
“They said that if you’re going to teach history, you should really try to teach everyone’s perspective,” Lowe said. “So they did that by teaching little lessons and then activities.”
That same format is how Lowe teaches during the camp. On the first day, the kids were taken to the Robinson Plantation, Clark’s oldest home and one of the oldest houses in the state. There, they learned about food and games that people ate and played in the 1600’s from museum director Scott McCabe. Afterwards, they made caramel apples using a 17th century hearth and played colonial games.
“We tried to make each lesson translate to hands-on fun,” Lowe said. “If you can make the kids laugh, you know they’re having a good time.”
Throughout the week-long camp, the students learned about the 17th and 18th century while considering the viewpoints of wealthy Europeans, impoverished Europeans, Native Americans, women, slaves and both patriots and loyalists during the American Revolution.
“We like the students to transfer that to current day,” Bertramba said. “No one’s definitely right and no one’s definitely wrong. If you look at the news, it might be slanted one way. We want our kids to know that there’s two sides to a story and they have to interpret what they think is best.”
“It’s like learning math and only learning addition,” Lowe added. “Addition’s super important, but it’s not the whole picture. Plus, kids like to ague and take the underdog position. Respectful and meaningful dialogue can be really beneficial.”
Other activities at the camp included an archaeological dig, which Lowe set up in the classroom and using baby pools outside, butter-churning, skits, wagon-building, playing music with a traditional African djembe (a wooden drum) and more. The camp culminated in a day-trip to Philadelphia, where they visited the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, the Museum of the American Revolution and the Franklin Institute.
“I love that we come up with ideas, implement them and see them successful,” Bertramba said. “If we hit on all three, we’re really happy. We talk about the camp all year long.”
Bertramba added that he and his wife will look for things to use in the camp at garage sales. Additionally, he and Lowe have visited other history camps, one in New Jersey and one in New York, to see how they run their own programs.
“Overthinking every little bit helps,” Lowe added.
Lowe and Bertramba are meticulous in their lesson plans and activities. Both were dressed in traditional colonial garb, with Bertramba wearing a tall, white wig. They wore those costumes the entire week.
“I think the kids like seeing their teachers dressed up and know that they’re willing to have fun,” Bertramba said.
Their activities were carefully thought-out as well. The archaeological dig, for example, included Native American artifacts, both wealthy and impoverished European Artifacts and African-American artifacts. The kids had to find each item, guess what it was used for and who used it. The first year of the camp, the dig took Lowe nine hours to prepare, he said.
“It’s quite a task,” he said. “But wherever we go, we’re thinking of the camp.”
At the end of the week, the campers buried a time capsule so future students can see what life was like in 2017, wrapping up the entire week of interactive learning.
“Mr. Lowe brings history alive for the children,” Clark Public Schools Superintendent Ed Grande said. “It's like they are stepping back into history right here in Clark."
The camp is open to rising fourth through seventh graders and runs from 8 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. for one week. A sign-up sheet will be handed out in school, but Lowe will also take email sign-ups and asked interested parents to message him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, Lowe and Bertramba would like to thank the following people who have supported “Clark Connects:” Scott McCabe of the Robinson Plantation, American Legion 328 for donating t-shirts for the Philadelphia trip, archaeologist Mike Cordasco from the American Legion, the Board of Education for approcing the camp, the VRS PTA for donations, fellow teachers Nicole Reagan, Kelly Williamson, Stephanie Philippakos, Nicole Mineruini, Sue Dzurovcik, Patricia Saver and school nurse Donna Kircher.