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Negotiating Treaties, Negotiating Curriculum

The Separatists from England, via Leiden, Holland, finally took their very well known journey on the Mayflower, which, by the way, was exactly this long (see photo above).

It was an eventful journey, full of storms, broken beams on the ship, hunger, seasickness, and the birth of a baby, who was appropriately named, Oceanus.


Landing (possibly) on Plymouth Rock, the Separatists headed out to find a place to establish their colonial town.


The local Indian tribe,the Wampanoag, watched carefully from the safety of the trees


and eventually approached the Europeans, the “Coatmen,” looking to trade with them.


Then, when Samoset, a Wampanoag Indian who spoke English came to see how long the Separatists would be staying in Wampanoag Territory, “he” (a girl in our class, AI, is Samoset) learned some shocking news:


NT (Governor John Carver): We will be staying for a long time.

AB (Pastor John Robinson): Forever.

AI (Samoset): I have some people I will bring with me and some will help you fish, some will be messengers, and…

AB:  Shouldn’t we make a treaty first?  Shouldn’t we get John Carver, Elder Bradford, Mister Brewster…

NT:  You mean Elder Brewster and Mister Bradford

AB:  Elder Brewster…

AI:  I will be happy to meet whenever I can.

AB:  Well, I can go get them right now!

This is one of those moments in a learning community inspired by listening, children’s passions and interests, and the learning standards established by the state of Oregon, when a teacher gets inspired!  After school, I sat down with Matt, one of the Opal 4 teacher collaborators, and showed him the dialog these children had.  We wondered,

When two groups come together they have to decide – what does it mean to be separate but have to coexist?  They negotiate a treaty, they create agreements.  How do they do that?  How could we negotiate our own treaties?

Then we wondered, Would we send Samoset and John Carver to do the negotiating for the whole class or would we “decentralize” the treaty negotiations and have all of the children negotiate their own treaties, in groups of four?  Are ideas stronger when they are made with everybody contributing to the whole or when they are decentralized?  Are groups higher functioning when they are smaller?

Having decided that we wanted to give the smaller groups a go and then let them look at the similarities and differences among the agreements they would invent, we wondered, What does the text of the real treaty tell us about the fears and dreams of these people?  “Fears and dreams” is a powerful lens: Could our students start their treaty negotiation preparation there?

We decided we would break them up into their culture groups and ask them:

What do you want?

What are afraid of?  

This is what they came up with:

The Wampanoag Indians’ List:


The Separatists’ List


And then they negotiated.


Here is one finished treaty:

Rory treaty


First in charge:  Stephen Hopkins
Second in charge:  Little Hawk
Third in charge: White Fox
Fourth in charge:  Love of God 

We agree not to harm each other, and to help each other when we are in need.  We agree not to bring harmful weapons into each other’s villages.  We agree not to hurt each other when we are guests in each other’s villages.  We agree to trade with each other.  We agree not to steal from each other.

Signed:  Step. Hopkins, Love of God.  Marks made by:  Little Hawk and White Fox

In these decentralized, small groups, the negotiating was relatively easy, and the flexible thinking students quickly agreed to the treaty’s language.  Then, when we asked the children to compare their treaties to those the other tables had written, the real negotiating began.  Do we really need that one?  Is that clear the way you have written it?


Maybe all this group needed was, “No war/keep the peace” and “Trade.” Or did they?

With the taste of this heated discussion fresh on the children’s lips, we asked them to go back to their seats and write, as their historical characters, a short form or six word memoir about what they had just experienced.

Now I know what they whisper. I wish I hadn’t. -SL

I’d do anything to move away. -TP

We fled 1000 miles for this? -AB

Built strong but will be broken.
It was all going straight sideways.

Life with them will go nowhere. -IM

Humf.  Them being very unagreeable.
We’re way more civilized in Europe.
They don’t understand anything.  At all.
Treaty or certain death, our choice.
Unagreeable; undeniable.

No treaty, no peace, no people. -RF

What weird strange people they are.
They are very, very, very unsocial.
They are very, very, very unforgiving.
What about the plague you brought?
We will never be alike.  Ever.
“We’re never going back,” he said.
We are all going to die.

Do they know how valuable our weapons are?
I am done saying no.
Don’t ask again.  Do they know?
Can’t they just agree?
I am not arguing.
No, that is not fair.
I am done saying no.
Don’t ask again.
Forever the answer is no.
We can never agree.
Stubborn stubborn stubborn.

Teacher Reflection

So much in this interaction inspires me and epitomizes my approach to learning history:  children developing historical understanding through imaginative play guided by empathy and balanced by the historical record; children puzzling through historical conflict in ways that parallel encounters the students are living in the present; and discovery leading to insightful meaning making.

And it’s so interesting to see the role of the teacher collaborators – listening, documenting, and pushing and questioning each other’s thinking.

What else is happening in this learning community that is supporting these 9, 10 and 11 year olds to become characters from history and act with each other with empathy, agency, and joy?  Their deep understanding of this story drives their work, but their comfort and trust in each other and the learning process allows them to let go and become their historical characters in their play, and I get to stand near and listen.  Their confidence in their writing ability and deep exposure to one particular genre at a time combined with their work in perspective taking lets them find their voices as authors.

Where will our story take us next?

What do you notice and wonder about our foray into a study of US history?

December 12, 2013