PROVIDENCE — A field trip to the Statehouse to learn about Rhode Island’s history left fourth graders of Wakefield Hills Elementary School with a wealth of insight into the state and its founding from a variety of 17th century perspectives.

When she was sworn in as Rhode Island’s Secretary of State in 2015, Nellie Gorbea said her goal was to “make government work for people.”

“But it doesn’t really work unless they are engaged,” she added Tuesday, just after addressing a group of the Wakefield Hills students. “People aren’t going to be engaged if they don’t feel that they’re a part of things.”

Rather than simply mandating that Rhode Island students take civics education, Gorbea suggested it would be useful to tap into some of the resources being stored in the state archives. 

And it was from that sentiment that the program to offer free field trips to the Statehouse through the Carter Roger Williams Initiative was born. 

Managed by the Rhode Island Foundation, the aim of the Carter Roger Williams Initiative is to provide resources about the state’s founder and his teachings in order to “establish a sense of place, awareness, and pride for all Rhode Islanders,” according to its website. One of the ways the initiative is accomplishing that is by inviting students in grades four through 12 to the Statehouse to learn about the state’s history and its founding.  

“At a time when our country is experiencing such strife, to take a step back to another time to think about history from the perspectives of the different people, I hope will help build more empathetic understanding of community going forward,” Gorbea said, adding that the ultimate goal is for the students to be engaged and understanding citizens. 

By the end of October, around 1,400 students from 15 schools statewide will have participated just this month. 

Lynn Tocco, a fourth grade teacher at Wakefield Hills Elementary School, applied to participate in the program, which covered the approximately $1,000 cost to bus every Wakefield Hills fourth grader — nearly 100 in all — to and from the Statehouse. 

And though the visit itself was free, that transportation funding was critical, added Veronica Seeram, a special education teacher at the school.

“It’s very complicated now to take our kids out of school on field trips,” Seeram said, alluding to the recent guidance from the state that prohibits schools from requiring families to chip in toward instructional field trips. 

“In the community that our kids live in, they don’t get to go out that often, so it’s great to bring them out on field trips where they can see all this,” she continued. “We talk about primary documents in class, but for them to actually come out and see it is really wonderful.”

The students were split into four groups for the Statehouse visit, taking turns rotating between a building tour and various speakers. 

In the library, with thousands of books towering above them, Lane Sparkman, associate director of education and public programs, taught students about primary sources, presenting them with old land deeds and maps from the state archives. 

Students also paid visits to the charter museum, where they heard from Ranger John McNiff of the Roger Williams National Memorial about Roger Williams’ “new and dangerous opinions,” and to the Bell Room, where Lorén Spears of the Tomaquag Museum taught them about the intersection of indigenous and colonial life.

Tocco said she thinks it’s important for students to have a knowledge of their state’s history. 

“There is so much history,” she said, walking with a group of fourth graders up a staircase to the top level of the Statehouse. 

Much of what students learned Tuesday, Tocco added, aligns with the lessons they’ve been getting this year in their classrooms. Students have been learning about the 13 original colonies, for example, and about the four democratic values.

“This all ties into that,” Tocco said, adding that students were also given a history lesson on the Statehouse, itself, ahead of their field trip.

The excitement of the student was obvious, as hands shot up to answer questions posed by their guides. 

“You should have heard them on the bus when we saw [the Statehouse],” Tocco added, while nearby a tour guide regaled students with the histories of the iconic symbols depicted on the ceiling of the rotunda. “It was nice to see the enthusiasm.” 

And that sort of enthusiasm around their state’s government and its history is just what Gorbea had hoped the free field trips would inspire. 

“I want these kids to feel a part of Rhode Island — whether their family arrived to our state a week ago, or whether their family has been here five, six, seven generation,” she said. “It’s that sense of ownership that makes you then hold the government accountable. It’s not the government, it’s my government. It’s our government.”

kgravelle@ricentral.com

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