For Rachel Zierdt teaching has always been about passion.
Now retired, 71, and living in Sebastopol after a 38-year career as an elementary school teacher in the Los Altos School District, her unique style of project-based learning honed over the years is now educating — and entertaining — students at Sonoma County schools.
Zierdt has an “Uncle Sam” program covering the three branches of government for the third grade, “Westward Ho” for the fourth grade, “Colonial Times” for the fifth grade and an “Archaeological Dig” for the sixth grade. She also teaches about Martha Washington from a first-person perspective.
On a recent school day at Hahn Elementary School in Rohnert Park, Zierdt was already in the classroom dressed in a petticoat, gown and cap like a gentry lady from the 1770s, as the fifth-graders slowly shuffled in.
“Is that the Westward Ho lady?” one student asked another, remembering Zierdt from last year’s program.
Zierdt divided the 90-minute program into four major categories: gentry, slave, craftsman and militia.
She began talking about clothing, both what she was wearing along with some comments about what a few of the students dressed in period clothes were wearing. Zierdt explained that a traditional dress might use bone around the bodice, or ribcage area, to keep the waistline a certain shape, but she found it too uncomfortable.
As she explained the different clothing she also talked about how words have different meanings now versus then. She used “underwear” as the first example and demonstrated how a lady could show her underwear, which was the garment underneath such as the petticoat, and not undergarments. The underwear comment received a few laughs, which appeared intentional.
“In Colonial times, families only bathed once a month,” Zierdt told the students before describing how servants would set up a makeshift tub in the kitchen, which was often located outside. Recounting how the entire family would share the same bathwater was met quickly with a chorus of “Eww!”
The discussion moved from plantation owners and their lives to the slave caste. Students lay down on the hard floor to mimic the experience of riding at the bottom of a ship’s hold, shackled for hours. As they lay quietly Zierdt walked up and down the line, vividly describing the experiences they would have endured.
Later, after standing the group up she asked students how they would have felt.
“I would have been scared, worried and in pain,” a student named Angelina answered.
The story then shifted to life in the militia. A student was quickly loaded up with his equipment including a powder horn Zierdt’s husband made for her by hand and a traditional tricorn hat. As Zierdt explained why that type of hat was folded in such a manner, demonstrating how the recoil from her wooden rifle would cause it to buck upward and knock off a rounded hat but not a folded one, a student whispered to his classmate, “This is so cool.”
While in some cases her presentations are paid for by the school, she has also received grants from both the Kiwanis and Lions clubs of Sebastopol. Each group has provided a $500 annual grant for the last three years to enable presentations at schools in Sebastopol and the West County.