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Lesson Plan
The People of Jamestown: The English
Role Play

Elementary, Middle

Objective: Students will describe English society as it existed in the late 16th and early 17th century and explain why the English began to explore during this time.

Standards of Learning:
Virginia SOL: VS 1d, e, g; VS3a; USI. 4a, 5a
National Standards of History: Historical Analysis and Interpretation; Historical Comprehension

Materials Needed for Activity:
Alternate Link: http://content.jwplatform.com/players/EmhlyJqz-FaSAPBTu.html

Slips of paper, one for each student, to draw from a hat. See directions below.

Other Helpful Resources:
See the Cultures at Jamestown background essay under Curriculum Materials.

Teacher Background:

Vocabulary Words:

hereditary – holding titles, rights, ranks, etc. by means of inheritance or by succession from one person or generation to another

absolute monarch – a king, queen or emperor who rules without restraint and whose decisions are final

aristocracy – a ruling class; nobles who have inherited positions in society

gentry – the group or class under the nobility but whose members belong to upper level society; they usually own land and are entitled to a coat of arms

The English system of government in the 17th century was based on heredity, while English society was organized by social rank and wealth. The aristocracy controlled over 75% of the land. While the merchant, professional and gentry classes had opportunities to elevate their status by increasing their wealth, most English citizens belonged to the lower classes and had no such opportunities. For all of these groups within English society, the 17th century was a time of change. England had always been an agricultural country based on grain production. During the 1500s, however, the demand for woolen cloth in Europe soared. By the 1600s, wool had become the basis of the English economy. In order to meet this demand, a series of legal actions made it possible for English landowners to enclose their farms and fence off large areas as grazing lands for sheep. As a result, landowners, wool manufacturers and merchants amassed great wealth, while small farmers and their families were uprooted from their small plots of rented land and drifted from the countryside to towns looking for work. Migrating to a new world seemed a hopeful choice for many of these people who were jobless and homeless. At the same time, wealthy Englishmen were looking for ways to invest their wealth. The charter issued to the Virginia Company of London by King James I in 1606 offered opportunities for many Englishmen, though for vastly different reasons.


Step 1: Review with students the time period as it relates to settlement in North America. Talk about exploration as an act of discovery, and remind students that Portugal and Spain had led the way for Europeans seeking trade and wealth in Africa and the new world respectively. The English followed, attempting a settlement at Roanoke Island which failed in the late 1500s. A number of other attempts did not result in permanent settlements.

Step 2: Review the meaning of the word “society” (a group of people with shared institutions and shared relationships). Remind them that society in England was defined strictly by class and birth. Wealth, political power, and high social status – based on land ownership and family connections – were concentrated in the hands of a small elite class.

Step 3: Prior to watching the video, students should be randomly assigned a role to play as a member of 17th-century English society. Allow each student to draw a slip of paper from a hat which will have his or her role in English society during the 17th century: aristocracy, merchant, gentry, lower ranks, and poor. Less than 10% of the slips of paper should be labeled “aristocracy”; a few more should be split between “merchant” and “gentry”; most should be labeled “lower ranks” or “poor”. After students have drawn their rank in English society, tell them to watch the video closely to determine what it states about people in their particular rank. Ask students to look for reasons why someone at their level of society might want to go to Virginia or prefer to stay in England.

Step 4: Show the video, Discovering Jamestown: The English.

Step 5: After viewing the video, give the students a few minutes to write down everything they learned about their particular rank. Reassure students that if they remember only one thing, that is all right as others who have their rank may remember something else.

Step 6: The teacher will play the role of roving reporter and move through the class asking individual students to stand and respond to the reporter’s questions. Sample questions:

  • What is your name, and what rank do you have in English society?

  • What can you tell us about your role in English society?

  • What kind of home do you live in?

  • Are you educated? If so, how did you receive your education?

  • What do you do for recreation?

  • What are your hopes for the future?

Summary Activity: After allowing all students to participate and making certain at least one student from each rank of society has been heard, ask students which group of English society they would have liked to belong if they had lived in 17th-century England. Why? Finally, ask members of each rank of society – aristocracy, merchants, gentry, lower ranks, poor – the following questions.

  • Would you want to go to Virginia as a colonist? Why or why not?

  • Would you have invested in the Virginia Company? Why or why not?

Discuss other questions which may have arisen during the role play.

The “Discovering Jamestown” electronic classroom was made possible
by Dominion & Dominion Foundation and John and Dorothy Estes.


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