By MARINA WATERS
When Jonesborough Elementary School Principal Matt Combs told Kelly Casteel, a fourth grade teacher at JES that she was being transferred to another school, she didn’t know it was only for a day. She also didn’t know it would be back in the 1800s.
“Our principal called me to his office one day and asked me how I would feel about being transferred,” Casteel recalled. “My heart about skipped a beat as I did not want to be transferred. I love my school. Then he said, ‘to Oakhill School in Jonesborough. It’s an older school.’ I didn’t really know what he was talking about. I’ve lived here my whole life, but I didn’t know what Oakhill School was. But finally he explained that the idea was to bring my fourth grade curriculum and teach it in there.”
After Casteel made plans to take her fourth grade class to Oakhill School, a historic one-room schoolhouse in Jonesborough, Combs also told the students that Casteel was being transferred — along with the entire class — to another school in another century.
But Heritage Alliance Executive Director Deborah Montanti said this wasn’t a typical field trip to the historic building; she said the Heritage Alliance, the group that helped facilitate the event and provide a town tour for the students, wanted to help provide a “living history” for the 21st century students. Part of that experience included teaching the students about schoolhouse etiquette and what would get you in trouble with the schoolmarm.
“The students who usually visit us go back in time to 1892. (Those at the Heritage Alliance) often dress the part and it’s a full day of reading, writing and arithmetic,” Montanti said. “This program is unique because Mrs. Casteel is using 21st century curriculum in a 19th century setting. It’s just been phenomenal. She’s just been masterful at blending that and the students have really enjoyed it. I think it’s brilliant.”
And to bring history to life, Casteel looked the part in a long, black skirt and Victorian-era, button-up high-neck blouse. Though she said many of the students pointed out similarities to the schoolhouse and their classroom at Jonesborough Elementary, Casteel said there was one big difference she noticed while teaching in the vintage setting, and that was the lack of technology.
“I’ve been a little spoiled,” Casteel said. “When I started teaching seven years ago, I started teaching with a SmartBoard, a projector, all these things activated by touch and devices to pull videos up and project things onto the screen. So that’s been hard today to not have that technology.
“It just takes more effort and more planning. Even copies of things, I didn’t bring anything like that. We’ve mostly been talking and reading and discussing some books and doing some things out loud as we’ve been practicing on our slate boards. It’s gone well, it’s just been a little bit of a challenge without that technology.”
Casteel also said she hopes it makes her students thankful to be living in a time with modern conveniences.
“It might make them feel more fortunate,” Casteel said. “Sometimes, you know, they have to come to school. And sometimes they can get a ‘we have to be here’ attitude.
“I think they might see how lucky they are to go to school in 2018.”
The fourth grade students came to school with only a lunch and spent the day learning language arts and social studies at Oakhill School with a slate board and slate pen. They also went over why the U.S. flag in the classroom only had 44 stars and said the 1892 version of the Pledge of Allegiance to match, all while a portrait of George Washington hung at the front of the classroom.
Apart from giving the students a real look at what life would have been like back then, Casteel said she hopes it gives them an appreciation for a place such as Jonesborough that is steeped in history.
“I just feel like Jonesborough has such a rich history,” Casteel said. “I’m guilty of not appreciating the history that’s here, living here your whole live and not knowing this is here. I didn’t even know this school was here until this (field trip) was presented to me. I feel like the kids have already learned so much about the town that they live in.
“That’s really important to know the history and your heritage of the place that you’re living.”
Montanti believes experiencing and understanding the history that lives in places like the walls of the old school offer more than just perspective. She believes they offer connection, much like the one a local student detailed in a letter following a similar field trip in Jonesborough about 10 years ago.
“At the end of the letter, this student says, ‘I have an aunt who is 104 years old. She lives in a nursing home and my parents make me go with them every Sunday to visit her. And I hate it until I went to Oakhill School. Now I love it because I feel like I understand her better and I have something to talk to her about.’
“That’s why it’s important,” Montanti said. “It’s making those connections. It’s feeling those roots, where we come from and how we’re all really much more alike than we are different.”