Magazine Feature

History Close to Home

Teaching students about the history of their community gives them a stake in its future.

One day, on his way to school, Roy Rowe happened to notice three hulking boats rotting on the beach just above the shoreline. Rowe, a district principal of two schools on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, had been looking for a way to bring his students' rich Aleut heritage into the classroom. The boats seemed a good way to begin. They were baidars, large, skin-covered canoes that could carry upwards of 20 people. The vessels were now obsolete, and the ones Rowe had discovered were in terrible shape.

"The sun, the salt, the snow, had really done a number on these boats," says Rowe. "And there were only a few elders who knew how to make these vessels seaworthy again."

Along with fellow teacher Craig Probst, Rowe arranged to move one of the boats to a storage shed near the school on St. Paul Island. Then they brought the elders and the students together to work on repairing the vessel. "It's extremely intricate," explained Rowe. "There are all these patterns of rope and skin, knots to learn, and the whole history of these boats and the hair-raising stories of the seafaring that once took place in them. The kids loved it, and so did the elders."

Rowe says the lessons extended well beyond the history and reconstruction of the old boats. The Aleut themselves are facing a subtle threat to their existence. Slowly, inexorably it seems, their culture, their traditions, even their language -- all that for centuries gave meaning and order to their lives -- are eroding.

"It's not just that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are replacing Aleut legends in the children's imaginations," says Rowe. "It's that the islands are becoming communities of strangers, that the values and dreams of different generations are no longer mutually intelligible. It's painful for both sides of the divide."

That's where working on the boats fit in. "I really think it helped bring the community together. Afterwards, the elders came back to the school pretty often. They'd do things like bring in animals for the kids to dissect in science class. Now the parents also feel that the school reflects who they are, that it's not an alien institution dropped down in their midst."

Rowe is one of a growing number of teachers nationwide dedicated to preserving and passing on their community's history to the next generation. The content of their courses is as diverse as the country itself, but their goals for their students are the same: to help them develop a commitment to their community; to learn a respect for the past; to probe the roots of conflict among neighbors; to learn how communities maintain their identity even as they change over time; above all, to realize that the story of ordinary people is the stuff of history, and that they, too, are links in the great chain of past and future.

The subjects may be of local interest, but the underlying themes are anything but parochial. Many of the issues -- ethnic diversity and culture change, gender roles and unsung local heroes, immigration and social activism -- are among the fundamental themes of a multicultural American history. "What we're learning is how we fit in," says 4th grader Rodney Merculies, who attends St. Paul's school.


Digging for History

Sometimes, digging into the past can involve exactly that -- some digging. When Dean Eastman, a high school history teacher in the largely blue-collar town of Beverly, Mass., won a national teaching award, he invested the prize money in the construction of an archaeological site on school grounds.

"The pit," as he affectionately calls his creation, offers his students the chance to participate in a simulated experience of an actual archaeological dig. "What we've done is buried artifacts at different levels, so the students discover the history of their neighborhood by unearthing the material goods of the societies that have existed here before them."

At the lowest level, Eastman says, are remains from the Woodland Indian societies that flourished on the eastern seaboard around 800 A.D. "We've got arrowheads, bone implements used for sewing and digging, beadwork. At the next level, we have the remains of early Puritan habitations, and the students can actually track the development of their society over time."

One example Eastman points to is the development of tobacco pipes. As many schoolchildren know, it was the Indians who introduced tobacco to Europeans. The earliest pipes are long and tubular, not unlike the so-called "peace pipes" one sees in Western movies. But the Puritans modified the device, making the stem narrower and shorter, giving a more concentrated smoke. As the pipe shrank in size, it also went from being a shared, communal implement to being an individual piece of property.

"One can read a whole set of meanings into this process of cultural adaptation," Eastman says. "And that process of adoption and transformation occurs again and again in our history."

Eastman, who teaches a special local history class in addition to courses in American history, believes that the best way to teach the subject is for the students and the teacher to become historians themselves. In addition to working in the pit, his students spend a lot of time researching primary documents related to local and national history. "We go all over," he says, "to state archives, to the county historical society, to the tax registrar and the registry of deeds."

A dominant theme in his classroom the last few years has been immigration. "We try to dwell on similarities rather than differences. How was the experience of some of my students' ancestors -- the Irish, for example -- similar to that of groups like the Cambodians and the Hispanics who are coming in today? What kinds of things pushed them from their native lands, and what attracted them to America?"

Eastman says teaching about the many parallels helps ease tension in the community. "The students learn how their immigrant forebears set up social/ethnic clubs and mutual aid societies. They discuss the various ways that they achieved upward mobility, whether through entrepreneurial activity or education or politics. And then we link that up to the present, and the kids see that things aren't much different now. The names have changed, and we're drawing people from a wider area across the world, but mostly it's the same process, the same push-pull of persecution or poverty abroad and hope for the future here in the U.S.A."


Neighborhood Discoveries

At Dearborn Middle School, located in the heart of Roxbury, an inner-city African-American neighborhood in Boston, Mass., 12 girls met weekly for a year to explore the history of women in their community.

"We found out about people and places in our community that we never knew," says student Akia Jenkins. "We walked and talked, we listened, learned, took notes and photographs."

The project began when one of the girls wondered out loud about the faded inscription above the school name plaque: "Erected by the City of Boston. Dedicated to the education of girls. Anno Dom. 1912."

Mary Smoyer, the school's librarian, offered a special class, titled "Voyages of Women," to a select group of students, "some who were really solid and some who needed a boost, who needed a sense of being special that they weren't otherwise getting at the school."

They began by researching the history of the school itself. "Most of us -- myself included -- didn't know that our very own Dearborn School began as the first public school in Boston dedicated to the education of girls. It was an eye-opener for the girls to learn what the curriculum consisted of in those days: sewing, laundry, cooking, home economics. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry."

Then they became interested in another neighborhood institution -- a 100-year-old Carmelite monastery, still home to a dozen Carmelite nuns. The students visited the monastery and spoke to the Mother Superior, who told them that the nuns stay inside the monastery all the time, praying for the safety of the community and on behalf of all the neighborhood children.

"The monastery was such a revelation to these kids," says Smoyer. "Roxbury can be a pretty grim place, and to enter a world that was so tranquil, with the burning candles, the hushed hallways -- it gave them a kind of sense for possibilities beyond their immediate experience."

It was the Mother Superior who led the girls to their next site, the Tot Lot next door, which local community activist Mildred Daniels operates every day in the summer so children will have a place to play without worrying about violence.

"It's part of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative," explains Smoyer, "which is basically about taking over the abandoned property and converting it to some useful purpose -- a garden, a mural, new housing."

"Ms. Daniels is just such an amazing woman," says student Eluneida Rocha. "She gave me a role model. Now, I think, 'I can make a difference too,' because I've seen with my own eyes what one person can do. She made the community stronger."

Two place-names gave the girls a chance to delve more deeply into their neighborhood's past. Melnea Cass Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in Lower Roxbury, was named after the "First Lady of Roxbury," a woman who fought 60 years to improve the resources and services for Boston's black community. The students learned that in Cass' youth she was a suffragist, that she helped found the community center Freedom House, and that she was, for a time, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP.

Another bit of sleuthing revealed that Wheatley Middle School, Dearborn's Roxbury rival, was named after Phillis Wheatley, one of the earliest African-American poets. Kidnapped from Africa at age 7, she was brought to Boston, learned Latin and published her first poem at age 11.

After locating and researching the stories of several more people and places, the students created a large fabric banner with a map showing a walking tour of the things they had discovered. "Then we had a party, inviting family and friends," recalls Smoyer. "Unfortunately, that day it was really pouring, so we couldn't actually take the walk, but the girls still gave a wonderful presentation of all they had learned." The students also produced an elegant brochure, with the help of some local professionals.

"Men always get this, get that," says student Josephina Pires, summing up her experience. "You hardly find any statues of women. This [project] was a way for us to give credit to the women who did things for the community."

"Most of all," says Smoyer, "the girls gained a sense of camaraderie, of fun. They were learning about women in history -- but it didn't feel like school. They were learning about role models -- but they weren't being preached at. They saw that they could make a difference because others like them already have."


A Painful Past

Not all of a community's history is necessarily to be celebrated, of course. Sometimes there are tragedies that form an integral part of a place's past. For residents of Levy County, in northeastern Florida, one episode in particular has haunted the collective conscience: a race riot in 1923 that destroyed an African-American hamlet and left at least eight people dead.

The full story of the riot itself is told in the book Us and Them: A History of Intolerance in America (Oxford University Press). In brief, a white woman in a nearby township emerged bruised and beaten from her home one January morning, claiming to have been attacked by a black man. This enraged the local white men so much that they set off in the direction of Rosewood, a thriving African-American town nearby. After several confrontations with local blacks who either did not or could not help them find the alleged perpetrator, the whites shot up the town and set it on fire.

Then, for decades, the event was hushed up, rarely mentioned or referred to by the older people in the community. "There was a pattern of denial, a tendency even, to say that the whole thing was caused by people outside the community," says David Colburn, a University of Florida historian. "Few young people learned about it at home or at school."

This pattern of denial and evasion continued even after the Rosewood case became nationally known in the mid-1980s following a "60 Minutes" broadcast about the massacre. But one teacher went against the grain. Dan Harmeling, a Levy County teacher, developed a Rosewood unit for his 6th grade Florida history and 8th grade American history classes. He collected historical descriptions of the event as well as present-day accounts, allowing his students to examine the tragedy from a number of angles.

In Harmeling's view, "Rosewood shows that equal rights and equal justice were missing from our democracy in the 1920s. It's important for young people to know that racism and intolerance can happen right here, or anywhere." Although he encountered objection from parents who felt that some history is best forgotten, he notes that the 1994 decision by the Florida legislature to pay reparations to Rosewood survivors has brought the subject into the open. "Every community," Harmeling says, "needs to know its own past."


An Unbroken Thread

For Rowe, Eastman, Smoyer, Harmeling and the many other teachers who are involved in bringing their communities' pasts into the classroom, the process of discovery is often as rewarding as the end result. "It's only by doing history that we can really become familiar with it," says Eastman. "The past can seem static, boring, until you realize that people then were struggling, making political and economic decisions just like us."

That's why local history is so important, insists Eastman. "By learning about the sacrifices and contributions made by the people who preceded you, you become more likely to develop civic pride and to want to make your community a better place to live."

For Rowe, the greatest adventure is simply ensuring that the thread connecting past and future remains unbroken. "Once a legacy is lost, it can never be truly recaptured," he says. "Forging the link between community and school, between the traditional and the modern, is the greatest satisfaction."

For all these teachers, local history offers a chance to engage students in a unique learning experience. The process of "digging around in your own backyard," as Eastman puts it, makes history come alive and brings the themes of unity and diversity, conflict and accommodation, activism and social change, closer to home.

Students as Historians

Getting Started

It takes some sleuthing to discover that a local thoroughfare was named after a woman who challenged segregation or that changes in the 19th century fishing industry brought large numbers of Portuguese to town. What’s the first step to finding out about your local community’s history, and how can teachers best interest students in such inquiries?


For Mary Smoyer in Roxbury, Mass., the trick is simply to pick a theme and start exploring the neighborhood, talking with the students and getting them to talk with their parents and grandparents.


“Make sure the kids feel invested in the project—that it’s their research agenda, not yours.” She advises teachers who want to do local history to make it a regular, positive experience. “We met every Friday from 10 a.m. to noon and had lunch together afterwards. And every time, we either went out exploring or had someone come in.”


History teacher Dean Eastman uses a more rigorous analytical approach. First, he suggests, become familiar with the use of primary documents. “Once you’re familiar with how to read them—and there are whole books on the subject—then you can start by making a trip to your local historical society to see what resources are available there. Almost every community has one or two official or unofficial historians, and you should sit down with them and formulate some questions that your students could answer.


“For example, in the Midwest, you might want to focus on patterns of migration. Were the frontier settlers newcomers to America, or had they been in the U.S. for several generations already? What happened to your community once the railroads come in? The answers come from cross-referencing different records and learning how to make sense of them. For example, if the census records indicate a pattern of siblings being born in Norway and in Iowa, then you can bet that the immigrants arrive directly, as young families.”


For this kind of close, textual analysis, Eastman recommends taking a class during the summer months, along the lines of the one he and a colleague teach during the summer in Iowa.


Digger Deeper

You’ve discovered several topics that might be interesting, and you’re keen to get to work. What next? How can you develop the topics in a way that’s meaningful for you and your students?


Since different students have different abilities and interests, one way is to divide the class into cooperative teams assigned to produce a mixed-media portfolio, combining art, video, photography and text. Let’s say, for example, that you and one team of students want to investigate the history of a local Greek Orthodox Church.


Two or three members of the team can be in charge of gathering oral histories by audio- or videotaping interviews with older members of the congregation and its priest. Others can investigate the church’s architectural style as well as the building’s ongoing relationship to its people. They can create a photo montage, diorama or other exhibit that reveals the congregation in all of its attitudes—celebratory of a wedding, reverential during high mass, solemn at a funeral. And, if they are lucky enough to find old photographs or sketches of the church at particular moments in its history, they can incorporate these into the exhibit.


Meanwhile, other students can pursue questions about the church and its history. How did the Greek community come to settle in this locale? Why did they choose to build such an extraordinary monument to their faith? What does the style of architecture say about their faith, compared to, say, the almost severe Puritanism of New England churches? Is the church still as relevant to the Greek community’s life as it was at the time of its construction? Or, like many of the more traditional churches in America, is it losing its membership as the children grow up and become “Americanized?”


Together, the student teams can produce a semester- or year-end exhibit that they can donate to the church and that will itself become a legacy for future generations interested in the past.

Add to an Existing Learning Plan
    Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

    New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

    Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—the first workshop begins October 16th and space is limited!

    Sign Up!