(Submitted photo)
(Submitted photo)

CONVOY — For Crestview history teacher James Lautzenheiser, history is not just a subject to be taught or facts to memorize, history is a true interest. For the past two summers, Lautzenheiser has spent a week at the home of his favorite president, Thomas Jefferson.

“The education wing (at Monticello)they have really been working on the past decade or so,” Lautzenheiser related. “They are really involved with bringing teachers — elementary, middle school, and high school — to Monticello to study different areas. The specific grant that I was on, the Barringer Fellowship, it allowed me and ten other teachers from around the country to develop some research project ideas that we wanted to focus on when we got to Charlottesville.”

Monticello is the private home and plantation of Jefferson, the nation’s third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

“The site itself is in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it includes probably 60-70 percent of the original 5,000-acre plantation in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” said Lautzenheiser. “The home itself, Monticello, the foundation has been charged with restoring it and keeping it to the period of Jefferson at his retirement, so you’re looking at 1809 until his death in 1826. That includes restoring the original working plantation itself, so they want visitors to have a sense of not just this is Thomas Jefferson’s home, but this is the working plantation. They want to paint the story of the people who worked there.”

Of course, aside from Jefferson, the other residents on this mountaintop plantation were slaves.

“During Jefferson’s lifetime, probably 90 percent of the people who ever lived on that mountain were enslaved peoples,” Lautzenheiser confirmed.

Lautzenheiser’s week in Virginia consisted of both some specific times to work on projects, and private time to do research.

He explained, “They had a structure set up that would allow us to explore a lot of parts of Monticello and Charlottesville, but built into that were specific research times where we had four to five hours at a time where we could be in the library or go find specific people who were staff members at Monticello who were experts in specific areas. We could immerse ourselves completely.”

The program itself is called the Monticello Teacher Institute. Two small groups of teachers took part in the program with the second group finishing up just yesterday. Lautzenheiser’s group was at Monticello from July 12-19.

Lautzenheiser noted that he had some work he planned to do.

“My goal was to go and develop an activity plan that I could use in my classroom here in Crestview that allowed people to see the difference between information-sharing techniques in the late 18th and early 19th Century as compared to now,” he said. “For kids these days with technology today, there’s no real work involved, and kids who are seventh and eighth graders, it’s always been easy for them. Even when we didn’t have a very good Internet, communication was still pretty good! If you look back at Jefferson’s era, even for a man who was very well-to-do, communication was difficult. And for a man who was curious and wanted to be a scientific farmer, he’d have to wait months sometimes to get communication back from different parts of the country or from overseas, and if a boat sinks or gets caught in a storm, he lost all that data right there.”

Lautzenheiser shared that he wanted to show students how difficult it was for people in Jefferson’s day to do something very simple for a person in 2014, like meeting someone for the first time. He created a language arts lesson to tie in with history, teaching about writing letters of introduction and showing how people had to use mutual friendships to get in contact with new people.

“For instance, Jefferson exchanged sunrise and sunset information with different people, including some in Europe. That information would help them understand astronomy better, climate and weather. Now I can get that in less than 30 seconds, even on a bad data day,” he stated.

Since Jefferson is Lautzenheiser’s favorite president, he has personal studies and knew which topics he would like to dig into deeper during his Virginia trip.

“I’m very much interested in being an amateur gardener myself, and Jefferson being this scientific gardener is very appealing to me,” Lautzenheiser revealed. “Although the more I find out, Jefferson did very little actual gardening himself even though he had these great interest in how species develop and cross-pollinate and what soil works best for certain crops. He didn’t do much of the gardening himself. He had enslaved peoples who were his master gardeners Very few of those people saw freedom in their own lifetimes or their children’s lifetimes. Looking at the resources he kept in his gardening book, in his farmer’s book tell a lot about the way they used to cultivate these crops, so when I went there I spent a lot of time looking at the various species of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.”

The issue of slavery is met head on by the staff at Monticello. Recent claims and discoveries have accused Jefferson of being sexually linked with Sally Hemmings, one of the slaves on the plantation, and the half-sister of Jefferson’s first wife.

“We don’t know with definite clarity his relationship with Sally Hemmings,” Lautzenheiser pointed out. “The Monticello staff openly acknowledges that. Someone, whether Jefferson or someone in his family, fathered an awful lot of children with the enslaved peoples, specifically Sally Hemmings. They don’t run away from that fact.

“Students tend to see him as a hypocrite. But we don’t know the complexities of his relationship with Sally Hemmings…the archaeology team is still finding out a ton of information about the relationships. It’s impossible for us to pass judgement on something when our understanding is continuing to evolve.”

“Using their web resources, they can really bring the primary documents to life, whether it’s letters from Jefferson to his children about what he expected them to do as a student, or his views on the Declaration of Independence, or his views on slavery around the time of the Missouri Compromise,” Lautzenheiser explained.

There are 60,00 surviving documents from Jefferson, everything from orders sent to Charlottesville for more supplies to personal correspondence with other Founders like John Adams. So much information is available on the website, which is one reason Lautzenheiser was invited to Monticello in the first place. The teachers’ work goes onto one of the website and can be shared with educators across the country and around the world.

“In a sense they gave us grants to come down there and grown the educational portion of their website,” Lautzenheiser smiled. “But regardless of your experience with Jefferson or with plantation culture and lifestyle, there is something there for everybody.”