Lincoln County Middle School teacher Rachael Yaden gives instructions to students Faith Godby, Bryston Alcorn, Faith Brock and Raelyn Barnes, left to right, during an inquiry lesson on life at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, in her 8th-grade social studies class. Photo by Mike Marsee, Nov. 16, 2015

Lincoln County Middle School teacher Rachael Yaden gives instructions to students, from left, Faith Godby, Bryston Alcorn, Faith Brock and Raelyn Barnes during an inquiry lesson on life at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. She taught the lesson recently in her 8th-grade social studies class.
Photo by Mike Marsee, Nov. 16, 2015

Brenna R. Kelly

How big were Thomas Jefferson’s pockets?

That’s what Rachael Yaden’s 8th-grade students wanted to know when they saw the collection that the Declaration of Independence author, second U.S vice president and third U.S. president carried around in his pockets.

But their questions didn’t stop there.

What is that stuff? Why did he need all of that? How did he carry all of that?

“The questions just keep coming,” said Yaden, a social studies teacher at Lincoln County Middle School.

The students don’t know it, but their questions are exactly what Yaden wants to hear.

“I ask them, ‘What do you have in your pockets and what does that say about you? What does it day about today’s society,’” she said.

Yaden then challenges her students to think about what the items in Jefferson’s pockets – such as a compass, utility knife, thermometer, drawing instruments and small pieces of ivory used as dry erase boards – tell them about life in the 18th century. It’s all part of an inquiry-based lesson designed to teach students not only about Jefferson and plantation life, but also how to research, improve literacy and develop critical thinking skills.

In inquiry lessons students use evidence, such as artifacts and other primary sources, to answer a central question.

“They are getting to be the detectives and the investigators,” Yaden said. “Kids are naturally inquisitive and they love asking questions and getting to answer questions.”

In Yaden’s lesson, students strive to explain what life was like at like at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s planation home in Virginia.

“I’m not teaching them, ‘Here is the planation, here is the big house,’” she said. “With inquiry learning, they take ownership of what they learn. It’s not being fed to them. There’s no textbook involved.”

Instead, they use pictures, letters and many of the online resources at to investigate life at Jefferson’s home.

The pictures were taken by Yaden last summer when she spent a week at the historic site as part of the Monticello Teacher Institute’s  Barringer Research Fellowship. During the week, each educator created a lesson plan to be added to Monticello Classroom, a collection of lesson plans and resources for teachers.

“The experience changed my life,” Yaden said. “It changed my teaching. It really opened up the idea of object-based learning and object-based inquiry.”

Yaden and the other teachers attended seminars taught by Jefferson scholars, took field trips and had access to Jefferson’s library and the University of Virginia’s collections.

“Anything that we needed for our lesson we had,” she said.

For teachers who can’t get to Monticello, the historic site offers several online resources – from full lesson plans, to virtual tours of the house, to a six-week massive open online course, “Age of Jefferson.”

Teachers can use the Sea of Liberty website, which lets teachers and students create digital projects with documents, letters and images related to ideas of liberty, freedom and self-governance.

Monticello has also created an app, Slavery at Monticello: Life and Work on Mulberry Row. The app includes narration by descendants of slaves, graphics and photos.

“Throughout my week there, I found that the slaves were an integral part of Jefferson’s life,” Yaden said. “They weren’t on the fringe. They were very interwoven in day-to-day life, which was eye-opening to me.”

The app can help teacher approach the subject of slavery, Yaden said, which is often hard for teachers.

“None of us like to teach it, but we have to,” she said. “It’s an important piece of our country’s history.”

In her lesson, Yaden challenges students to make personal connections to people they are studying. For example, students are asked to compare the jobs they do at home or on the farm to the jobs Jefferson’s grandchildren and the slave children did at the plantation.

“I want them making those personal connections,” she said. “Because the fasted way to an inquiry is to make a personal connection to it.”

During the lesson, students rotate through eight stations focused on a different a segment of life at Monticello. After completing the stations, Yaden leads the students in a discussion of their preconceptions and whether they gained new insights.

At the end of the lesson, students have the choice to write a narrative, create a digital presentation, produce a 10-minute skit or draw a poster about life at Monticello.

Students can choose any aspect of life to focus on and have to use the evidence they studied at the station. Communicating their understanding of the material demonstrates much deeper learning than just reciting a set of facts about Monticello on a test, Yaden said.

“We are getting away from drilling students on facts because you can Google it now,” she said. “You can’t Google good writing, you can’t Google descriptive writing. An Inquiry lesson really teaches to those skills they are going need in real life.”


Rachael Yaden