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Teaching Guide

Teaching Colonial Virginia

Not just another tourist stop.


Ah, Virginia: unintentionally supporting presidential assassination since 1865. Ever since it was founded, Virginia has had a long, confusing, contradictory history. It's up to you to untie the tangled ties that bind this state together, without everything unraveling at your feet.

Our main recommendation: don't stage a cockfight in class. We have a few other activities that would be more educational.

In this guide you will find

  • information on why Colonial Williamsburg is now a prime tourist destination.
  • assignments to help students to analyze the historical documents of runaway slaves, William Byrd, Samuel Davies, and many others.
  • essay questions exploring the sometimes baffling opposing political and racial views of the state's founding citizens.

Unlike Virginia's motto, ours is clear: we speak student. Let us join the conversation with your class.

What's Inside Shmoop's History Teaching Guides

Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring history to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

In this activity, your students will explore the role played by social pastimes in strengthening class relations while reinforcing social hierarchies. They will then identify school activities that fill a similar sociological function.

1. Show your students the short slideshow on cockfighting posted in the Colonial Williamsburg site.

You might also show these additional images of cockfights in other locales:

2. As they view the images, ask your students to think about the ways these events both united and differentiated people within colonial Virginia.

  • What social classes seem to be represented at the events?
  • To what extent are they there as equals?
  • How are social distinctions maintained?
  • What effect does an event like this have on social relations?
    • Do cockfights strengthen social relations?
      • Do they improve class relations?
      • Do they threaten or reinforce class relations?

3. Next ask your students to identify contemporary social events or pastimes that fill a similar role.

  • What pastimes today bring Americans of all classes together?
  • Do these events serve both to unite and differentiate?

4. Ask your students to identify a school activity that fills this same role—an event that brings the "classes" together while also differentiating between them. If there is no such activity, ask them to design an event that unites the four classes behind a common activity while also reinforcing the class "hierarchy."

Instructions for Your Students

Colonial Virginians loved their sporting events—especially horse races and cockfights. But historians have argued that these did more than just pass the time on a Sunday afternoon. Take a look at this image of an eighteenth-century cockfight and think about the role events like this played in strengthening Virginia society.


Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary & Analysis    Timeline    People    Facts    Photos    Best of the Web    Citations    
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