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Predicting Weather in the Eighteenth Century

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Introduction

In colonial times many people, especially farmers and sailors, relied on weathervanes and almanacs to help them predict the weather by indicating which way the wind was blowing. The rooster, the most popular of weathervane characters, was used in Europe as early as the ninth century on the roofs of churches in order to ward off evil and to proclaim good faith. Bringing this tradition with them, early American colonists placed weathervanes in the shape of roosters on the tops of barns and houses. Local craftsmen, farmers and carpenters experimented with a variety of designs. In country areas inland weathervanes took the form of cows, pigs and horses, while on the coast, fish, whales and sailboats were common. Indians were also popular, and the eagle became a patriotic theme around the mid-nineteenth century. Almanacs provided long and short-range weather forecasts on which people relied to help them plan their activities, including planting and harvest.

Time Requirement

3 class periods

Materials

Objectives

As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • identify the role of the weathervane in colonial America
  • determine the accuracy of almanacs in predicting the weather
  • create a design that reflects aspects of eighteenth-century weathervanes

Setting the Stage

Discuss with students the importance of almanacs such as Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack. Tell students that these annual publications included calendars of weather forecasts, astronomical information, tide tables and other related information. For instance, Poor Richard's Almanack from 1753 states "April 13–14 clouds and rain." How might this influence a farmer in planning his work year? Ask students to identify other devices the colonists had to predict the weather.

Strategy

Ask students why farmers and others who depend upon the weather for their jobs and safety would pay close attention to wind direction. Discuss with students the term "wind direction" and how it is usually expressed in cardinal directions (the points of a compass–N S W E). If a farmer knew that northeast winds generally bring rain, how might a weathervane assist him in determining his work schedule?

Because weather vanes were expensive items in the eighteenth century, they generally were found only on the top of public buildings. Some of the public buildings of Williamsburg included the Courthouse, the Capitol, the Governor's Palace, Bruton Parish Church, the College of William and Mary and the Public Hospital. Indicate to the students that they are going to investigate the weathervanes that were once on these prominent public buildings in Williamsburg.

Divide class into six collaborative groups. Give each student a copy of the graphic organizer The Weathervanes of Williamsburg. Assign each group one of the weathervanes pictured to investigate. They are to provide a description of the weathervane and the building on which it was found. When all groups are finished, ask a student from each group to report its findings back to the class. List these findings under the description column on the graphic organizer. After all groups have reported, have the class as a whole discuss the common differences and similarities. Give students time to complete the graphic organizer.

Next, inform students that they are going to design a weathervane. Ask students to think of a way to personalize their weathervane. Perhaps they might use their initials, like the GR on the Governor's Palace weathervane which stands for King George. Or maybe a date is important, like 1693 on the William & Mary weathervane, which indicates the college was founded.

Give each student a copy of the instructions for Making a Weathervane. Discuss with students the materials that are necessary for completing this assignment. After each student has the required materials, have them create their own personal weathervane.

Alternate Plan

Provide students with a recent edition of the Farmer's Almanac. Have them select four dates from different parts of that year or month and list what the weather prediction was for these time periods as found in the Farmer's Almanac. Next, obtain copies of the local newspaper for these dates and have the students identify what the actual weather was like. How accurate was the prediction in the Farmer's Almanac? If you were a farmer, how much faith would you place in this information?

Assessment

Use the following rubric in making an assessment of the students' finished weathervane: Authenticity - 30; Functionality - 30; Creativity - 20; and Individuality - 20.


This lesson plan was developed by Fae Moeller, Alki Middle School, Vancouver, Washington and the staff of School & Group Services. If you have a lesson plan which you would like to share, please send to Jim Ebert, School & Group Services, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, PO Box 1776, Williamsburg, VA 23187.



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