Roaming With The Gnome
By Joe Foster
History is something that must be lived, not just learned through lectures, books, and film. This single concept drives my classroom as I strive to use my experiences to fuel an understanding and desire in my students to connect with the past.
I utilize my various experiences in local government to help students grow in my Government class, my experience as a reenactor to help students understand the Civil War and my travels to relate subjects to teenagers who may never have experienced such places first hand. Sharing pictures and videos of the places we study is something I love to do. But nothing beats first-hand experience.
In The Great Republic, Winston Churchill wrote that “No one can understand what happened merely through reading books and studying maps…You must cover the distances in person; you must measure the rivers and see what the swamps were really like..." Churchill did exactly that by touring Civil War sites around Virginia in 1929. Unfortunately, whether due to distance, cost or convenience, not all students can experience these outdoor classrooms. I teach history in northwestern Ohio at Waynesfield-Goshen High School, a small rural school with a total enrollment of less than 600 students. We graduate about 45 students a year. While our size and location often makes visiting Civil War battlefields impractical, I have found a unique method to bring battlefields and Civil War education to my students. Jebediah the Gnome.
Jebediah stands about eight inches tall and wears a bright blue coat and a pointy red hat. He never shows his hands but travels wherever our lessons take us. He may just be a Travelocity Gnome; but to my classes he is their mascot. His Facebook page lists his occupation as mascot and muse. During class he sits on my desk yet somehow manages to travel the globe and bring evidence of his adventures back with him. His exploits are relatable to the students – they see him every day and sometimes even join him on his journeys.
Jebediah joined my classroom four years ago as I searched for a mascot students could identify with. I started with a medieval shield that students decorated and painted. But have you ever tried to take a three foot tall wooden shield into a museum or tourist stop? Let’s just say it wasn’t practical.
Jebediah was my second choice. Jebediah was quickly adopted by the students in the Civil War Brigade, my student organization dedicated to preserving Civil War history and education. The students named him and began to feature him in their projects. He even narrated a couple student videos. Jebediah soon gained friends: three inch and an 18 inch replica named Abraham and Ezekiel. A variety of sizes can be quite useful for different scales in photography.
Jebediah’s greatest adventure came in 2011 when he had toured Gettysburg for his first battlefield expedition. Jebediah looked over the sharpshooter’s wall in Devil’s Den and sat at the feet of General Warren. He stood below the Virginia Monument and visited Sallie on Doubleday Avenue. Jebediah visited the monuments of the 13th Vermont and the 20th Massachusetts. For every location, I composed a short poem (I’m really bad at poetry!) containing clues to the historical significance of the men represented at each monument. I then put this photographic record into a scavenger hunt. Now students can research and use their own knowledge to Roam with the Gnome in Gettysburg. And they can do this whether they are in Gettysburg or at home in Waynesfield.
Students use the Roaming with the Gnome scavenger hunt to test their knowledge of the people and units who served at Gettysburg and the monuments that tell their story. Students can either work in teams as a competition or as one group to decipher the clues using their knowledge and notes that have been gathered through lessons, tours or personal research. The clues cover a variety of details about the battle of Gettysburg. Whether it is the regiments (1st Minnesota), commanding officers (Doubeday), mascots (Sallie), geographical locations (Devil’s Den), civilians (John Burns), or monument details (96th Pennsylvania), students are challenged to apply what they have learned to solve a challenging puzzle. On the battlefield this can turn into a completive race to be the first to find each location and prove it with a photograph of yourself in the right spot.
But for those students who never visit the battlefield, the Gnome challenges them to look at stories behind the individuals who struggled there and the interpretation each monument provides. Every monument tells the story of the men who bled there. That story is often told in their own words as those men designed their own regimental markers. Using books such as Gettysburg: Stories of Men and Monuments, websites such as Virtual Gettysburg, or the Civil War Trust's Gettysburg360, students can learn the story told by every monument. After students have studied a few monuments to see how the memories and experiences of the battle can be related in stone, I will often ask students to design their own monument for a unit that I selected for them. We can then compare their version to that created by the soldiers. Students can finish the activity by completing the scavenger hunt using the resources we have at hand in the classroom. It is amazing how setting Jebediah on the table of a struggling team can be the inspiration some students need to win the race. In many ways the gnome is truly their battlefield guide for the day.
Jebediah has been so well received that I am planning on sequels: Roaming with the Gnome in Antietam and Roaming with the Gnome in Washington, DC are next on my agenda. The students enjoy traveling with Jebediah (literally and figuratively) and have found unexpected ways to grow with his adventures. I have pictures of the gnomes with students sitting on an airplane tire in Borneo, visiting a Buddhist temple in Thailand and basking in the sun on the shores of South Africa.
One of my proudest moments came in the summer of 2012 when leading a group of students to Gettysburg. I lost track of Jebediah during one of many stops on Confederate Avenue. By the time we reached the Longstreet Memorial I was panicking. Where could he be? Did we forget him somewhere? My worries were unfounded. He was with two of my students getting his photo taken with reenactors around the campfire. That was a bonding moment I could never have imagined. Yet there it was: two teenage girls intelligently discussing the Civil War with two living historians from across the country. And it was an eight inch gnome that brought them together.
Mascots have been used throughout history to bring people together. Mascots take on powerful meaning whether it be sports, clubs, or the military. Jebediah has helped bring my students and community members together. Current senior and Civil War Brigade vice-president Mindi Brookhart sums it up this way: "Jebediah is a fun way for us to relate our stories and experiences to others. For example, they might not be into the Civil War, but at least with the gnome we can grab their attention and get them thinking about it. Any little bit helps when spreading awareness."
Students want to learn history. Many of them just don’t know it yet. Creating a personable mascot; sharing in his travels; joining in his adventure. It works. I can’t wait to see where Jebediah takes my students next.