Greetings, families! This week’s blog comes to us from Ashley DeVos, our 4th grade Head Teacher. In social studies, her students have been studying the history of New York City, beginning with the Lenape and now about the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.
In 1641, a man named Willem Kieft was sent by the board of directors of the Dutch West India Company to serve as the Director General of the New Amsterdam colony. The Director General had the power to make laws, command soldiers, and punish wrongdoers. Each trading outpost had a Director General, and since the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam was so far away, the Dutch West India Company relied on the good judgement and strong leadership of their Director Generals no matter where in the world they served.
In New Amsterdam, Willem Kieft was in charge of the Dutch West India Company’s fort, trading post, towns, and farms. He decided to have a council to advise him, so as to make the people of New Amsterdam feel as though their voices were being heard.
But his council consisted only of himself and one other person – and he chose a person that he knew would always agree with him. Furthermore, Kieft allotted two votes to himself and only one for his other councilman! Needless to say, this council of two didn’t make anyone in New Amsterdam feel their voice was being heard, and eventually, Kieft expanded his council to twelve members. The council members all came from New Amsterdam, but not everyone in the community was represented – there were company employees, plantation owners, ship owners, tavern owners, but no women, slaves, Native Americans, or children.
To bring this rudimentary form of representative government to life, this week we turned our classroom into Kieft’s Council. I played Governor Kieft, and each student played a member of the council.
Before the council’s business could commence, students needed to become familiar with the people they were playing. They were provided information about the person’s life, occupation, and feelings towards Kieft. The identities of the council members were drawn from history, some real and others just realistic. By learning about these people, students gained practice in perspective-taking, and used this knowledge to inform the opinions and decisions they shared as part of the council.
Then I called the council together to ask their advice on a series of situations. The situations were all drawn from history, and in some cases, Kieft’s words were presented exactly. Situations ranged from taxation to theft of animals, from violence against the Dutch to violence perpetrated by the Dutch. The council had time to discuss amongst themselves, then we came back together to decide what course of action should be taken.
Students embraced this activity, remained in character, and brought up many rich discussion topics and ideas. We were able to see the viewpoints of many different types of people, as well as learn about the true outcomes of the situations decided by Kieft in that time.
Students learned that although the council was larger, Kieft could still just ignore their advice. This made New Amsterdam more like a kingdom than the democracy we have in the United States today. Many noticed that Kieft was an unfair and selfish leader, which eventually led to his downfall and removal from his position as Director General. They also learned that even in a representative government, not all voices could be heard and this resulted in inequality and negative outcomes for many in the community. Stay tuned as we continue to explore the developing story of our nation’s history!