From left: Stephen F. Austin State University elementary education majors Brinisha Shaw and Holly Franz experience life as a teacher in the 1900s as they teach third graders a reading lesson in a one-room schoolhouse at Millard's Crossing Historic Village. This activity was part of the annual Pioneer Days event coordinated by SFA, Millard's Crossing and area schools.

NACOGDOCHES, Texas - Digging the plow into the textured soil, farmer Pete, played by Stephen F. Austin State University senior Michael Correll, teaches dozens of third grade students from Nacogdoches Independent School District about subsistence farming and life on a farm in rural East Texas in the early 1900s. As he carves out each row in his garden, Pete explains how chain grocery stores were nonexistent in his day and how families had to grow the food they wanted to eat.

For more than 20 years, SFA, area schools and Millard's Crossing Historic Village have worked together to bring the past to life in an interactive field trip known as Pioneer Days. During this weeklong event, SFA elementary education students interact with third graders though a variety of experiential learning activities.

"By playing a character, it is more immersive for the kids and they seem to be more into the station," Correll said. "By being farmer Pete, I was able to connect what life was like for me back then to the students today."

Event coordinator and organizer Dr. Vicki Thomas, assistant professor at SFA, said in Texas, third graders learn about the past and how technologies and inventions changed the world.

"During Pioneer Days, children get to experience what a child's life may have been like on a subsistence farm in rural East Texas about a century ago," Thomas said. "The children explore artifacts that were used in the past and learn how inventions can make life easier. They also compare and contrast life in the past to their lives today."

Some of the activities the children participated in included attending school in a one-room schoolhouse, hand washing clothes, playing pioneer games, plowing a garden, making toys out of corncobs and feathers, and more. At each station, SFA students were dressed in traditional pioneer clothing and discussed varied aspects of life in the early 1900s.

"It is so exciting to see the teacher candidates in full-out performances. They put so much heart and soul into their parts and work hard to engage students in the learning process. I can see them growing and mastering their craft each time they conduct their stations," Thomas said.

In the Millard-Lee house, SFA students became historic characters as they engaged in a real-life wax museum.

"The children learn about important people in Texas during their wax museum tour. With the ringing of a bell, characters come to life to engage in conversations about their contributions to the city and state," Thomas said. "For example, Lera Thomas, one of the characters, was a woman who showed great determination when she relocated historic landmarks in the 'oldest town in Texas' before they were destroyed due to expansion."

Additional characters included Stephen F. Austin, Nettie Marshall and Anna Raguet.

Nearly 1,000 students are served each year during the fall and spring semesters. Last week, hundreds of students attended the fall portion of Pioneer Days.

"Seeing the smiles on the children's faces is priceless because they are so excited to be outside and engaged in hands-on learning activities," Thomas said.

Pioneer Days educates young students on East Texas' history and also gives SFA elementary education majors an opportunity to practice teaching techniques in the field.

"As part of our elementary education program, teacher candidates study learning theories, management strategies, instructional practices, lesson planning and educational standards," Thomas said. "Pioneer Days includes opportunities to put all of those concepts into practice with children. Their participation is integrated into a required social studies course."

Thomas said Pioneer Days continues to be successful and relevant by benefiting both SFA students and the visiting third grade students.

"Pioneer Days is the culmination of months of planning, organizing, teaching and learning, so when the days arrive, I am thrilled to see it all come together like a symphony," Thomas said.