Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"History is just so fascinating": archives as a teaching tool

In today's Washington Post, there's a splendid article by John Kelly that outlines how the Stuart-Hobson Middle School, a highly regarded public school within the District of Columbia, uses its own archival records to interest students in the history of the school and their community.

The old attendance books, photographs, and other materials were discovered about three years ago, and an enterprising parent wrote a successful Institute of Museum and Library Services grant application that enabled the school's librarian to hire a couple of part-time processing archivists. Once processed, the records became the focus of a wide array of student projects.

Working with the records has forced the students to confront the school's segregated past and contrast the professional careers of their own parents with those of the blue-collar workers who sent their children to the school during the mid-20th century. It has also them to appreciate present-day traces of the past: one student marveled that students who attended the school decades ago lived in homes that are still standing today.

A lot of students are quoted in this article, and it's plain that they are really fired up about working with these records. One student Kelly interviewed stated that "history is just so fascinating," and all of the others were equally enthusiastic. It's also evident that their studies have led them to reflect upon the ongoing nature of historical change: Kelly asked a couple of students how future Stuart-Hobson students will view them, and they readily recognized that in 2050 their clothes will seem as old-fashioned as those of the students of 1950 seem today.

Reading this article brought to mind something that I heard a few years ago when I sat in on a meeting of Western New York archivists. Ken O'Brien, who teaches history at the College at Brockport, SUNY and sits on the New York State Historical Records Advisory Board was one of the attendees. Although I'm not sure he remembers me, I don't think I'll ever forget something he told me in passing. He discussed how each student at an area school had used school records and other materials to research the life of a student who had attended the same school a long time ago, and mentioned in passing that such projects mold character as well as minds. At the same time as students learn a lot about local history and broader historical trends, they learn to look beyond the old-fashioned clothes and given names. They come to recognize that people who lived in the past had varied talents, interests, and goals and experienced joy and sorrow as intensely as they themselves do. In sum, projects such as these help to develop students' capacity for empathy -- which our culture desperately needs but doesn't always encourage.

Kelly's piece also made me start thinking about the long-term impact of such projects. I have the sneaking suspicion that in about twenty years, a substantial number of young archivists will trace their choice of career to elementary and middle school projects that made sustained use of archival materials. However, the potential is much greater. Most of the students at Stuart-Hobson and other schools that make imaginative and stimulating use of historical records will not become archivists or historians, but many of them will continue to appreciate, in an almost instinctive fashion, the value of archival records. In other words, they are our future supporters -- which means that, in the long run, helping teachers develop solid and intrinsically interesting historical records projects may be the most potent form of advocacy available to us.

John Kelly's article is a joy to read, and it's accompanied by a delightful photograph of four white-gloved students holding encapsulated documents. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

Jeremy N. said...

This is reminding me of that project out in Jamestown, New York, with middle schoolers collaborating to document the town's history through previously unsaved records.

As you said, I like the idea of using this kind of thing as a model for effective classroom use of records, especially considering how into it the kids seem.