Students older than the third grade are our primary student visitors at Ford’s Theatre. But at least once a year, the Education Department has the opportunity to host a first- or second- grade class field trip to our site. It’s always so much fun to plan an experience for this age group. In fact, it’s led us to think about ways we might encourage more early elementary classrooms to visit our site for a field trip.
Full disclosure: I am the parent of one pre-k four-year-old, and one first-grade student. I am constantly thinking of ways to teach my children about Abraham Lincoln, and as an extension, I think a lot about how young children can learn and connect to Lincoln while visiting Ford’s Theatre.
Many may think that is not an appropriate or accessible destination for early learners because a terrible tragedy happened here. I disagree, and here’s why: When young learners visit the Ford’s Theatre campus, the focus isn’t on the Lincoln assassination, but instead on why we learn about and honor the memory of Abraham Lincoln today.
It’s never too early to teach children about what it means to be a good person, and Abraham Lincoln— while not perfect—was certainly good. We learn about Lincoln because he had courage, he tried to do good things for others, and he used his words as he tried to make the country a more fair place to live. For early learners just starting out in school, these are very important lessons!
Lincoln also was a family man, and the stories of his sons’ White House escapades are a wonderful way to teach early learners about Lincoln’s humanity. When elementary students visit our site, we look at photos of the Lincoln family and artifacts from the White House (including Tad’s toy sword), talk about how Lincoln pardoned his son Tad’s soldier doll, Jack, and how the boys had a pet goat!
On top of all this, President Lincoln loved to read. I love to talk to young children about this and to share stories of how Lincoln would read anything he could get his hands on. We also know he would write on boards or scraps of wood because paper was scarce, according to Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald. Lincoln would write down passages he’d read on whatever he could find, until he could then re-write it down when he came across some paper.
Students young and old are mesmerized by the Lincoln Book Tower in the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership—a perfect place to talk with kids of all ages about the joy and usefulness of reading books.
I recently read an article in The Atlantic written by an early childhood educator who advocated for the idea that young children can and should learn about participating in a democracy, and what it means to be a citizen. I couldn’t agree more.
When young children visit our site, we spend time in our exhibits looking at primary source photos and videos that show the ways Abraham Lincoln serves as a symbol for democracy, justice and change. We learn about his friendship with Frederick Douglass, and watch videos of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Most importantly, we spend time making the connection between Abraham Lincoln’s words and actions to the words and actions of kids today. We ask the children, “What is the thing about Abraham Lincoln that you like best? How are you like Lincoln?”
I encourage teachers and parents of early elementary students to consider a trip to Ford’s Theatre. We would love to host you! We want your students to leave with a love of Lincoln that will start them on a learning journey of a lifetime. And if they don’t, at least they will be able to tell you not only that Lincoln appears on the penny and the $5 bill, but why. And that’s an excellent place to start.
Cynthia Gertsen is Associate Director for Arts Education at Ford’s Theatre. She oversees the National Oratory Fellows program as well as local oratory initiatives. She is also the mother of two rockin’ young daughters. She hopes they grow to love Lincoln as much as she does.