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WESTTOWN — Fifth graders at Penn Wood Elementary received a blast from the past when Thomas Jefferson stopped by Wednesday morning to talk about his life and a trip he took to Philadelphia, which impacted his ideas about education.
“As you come here into Philadelphia, you reflect how it was for Jefferson coming to Philadelphia,” said Bill Barker, who portrayed Jefferson. “It was a very provocative and profound time when he first came here. That was well before he came here to write the Declaration. In Philadelphia, there was a freedom for religion, there was a slave emancipation society and the public school system greatly influenced him when he returned to Virginia, particularly when he was elected to public office in Williamsburg.
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“I don’t think many people think about that, particularly in the Philadelphia area. Penn’s colony was important in the creating of the nation.”
Barker, who is a Philadelphia native, has been a history enthusiast since his childhood when he visited Jefferson’s Monticello.
After portraying our third president at Independence Hall in 1983, a friend suggested he should look into doing it full-time due to his uncanny resemblance to the actual Jefferson and he ended up doing so in Colonial Williamsburg.
“It’s a privilege to be able to bring this in the work that I do in Colonial Williamsburg,” Barker said. “John D. Rockefeller said, and it remains our motto, that the future may learn from the past. Here’s the opportunity in the persona to speak from the past and to help people realize it’s just as relevant today as it has always been.”
Teresa Wood, who is part of the Advisory Council at Colonial Williamsburg, was instrumental in bringing Barker back to Pennsylvania.
“My husband and I have been working on this for over a year,” she said. “Mr. Jefferson will be visiting schools in the West Chester and Downingtown school districts today and tomorrow. In total, he’ll be seeing over 1,000 students between the two districts. It has been very exciting. The kids were very attentive and just engrossed in the whole event.”
Barker held the hour-long presentation in the cafeteria for the fifth graders, who were learning about American History.
“To bring it to life, quite so real, is amazing,” said Ellen Gicomis, principal at Penn Wood. “What an experience for these kids. I watched one youngster who, necessarily, school isn’t easy for him, but he was totally enraptured because history is his thing. It was just beautiful to watch him.”
He wasn’t the only student who couldn’t take their eyes off Jefferson, who looked like he came straight out of 1809.
“I think they identify, particularly in the fifth grade, with historical figures,” Wood said. “Just the first-person character helps them to appreciate the importance of history.”
After an interactive presentation with the students, Barker opened the floor to questions.
And there wasn’t a shortage of those.
“We could still be asking questions there and throughout the rest of the day,” Barker said. “That’s a testament to the success of the teachers here at Penn Wood.”
Because Barker had made such a trek up from Virginia, Gicomis wanted the students to give some sort of thank you to him.
However, the students and teachers took it a step further and created a Declaration of the Fifth Graders of Penn Wood Elementary School.
“I had asked them to present some sort of thank you certificate,” Gicomis said. “The teachers took it and put it together that way. I’m so fortunate with the staff I have.”
Barker will remember and treasure the gift, which, he said, was something he had never received before.
In return, the students received a presentation to remember throughout their scholastic career, if not longer.
“The experience is the part they’ll remember,” Gicomis said. “You can read, and we do a lot of reading, but to have a person with hands-on learning in multi-sensory ways just etches the experience in their minds. It makes a difference.”