Scandals and Scavenger Hunts: How to Interest Students (or anyone) in Local History

IMG_0572 It was a small, but lively group in the community room at the McArthur Library in Biddeford last night for the MCHP team’s community conversation event.

Small often means big when it comes to fostering discussion. Every person gets a chance to speak, and those that may feel uncomfortable piping up in large groups find a smaller number less intimidating. It also means that ideas can be fleshed out, rather than skipped past as soon as they uttered.

Last night, this relaxed and expansive atmosphere translated into thoughtful conversation about how best to align topics with the students working on the MCHP.

The Biddeford Team (team leader Denise Doherty is second from left)

The Biddeford Team (team leader Denise Doherty is second from left)

If you’ll recall, team leader Denise Doherty teaches alternative education students (scroll down to the September 14 entry for a more detailed explanation of the Biddeford team). While there may be challenges with this group of students that are different from those in a more traditional class, at heart, kids are kids. And, when it comes to history and good stories, they are not so different from the rest of us with a few more candles on our cakes.

A few salient tips, then, that emerged from the discussion that we might remember when choosing topics to engage students of all stripes–or anyone doing local history.

1) Don’t second-guess your audience. Since school started Denise has given students a number of opportunities to explore possible topics for the MCHP. She plastered the walls of her room with a variety of old photos of downtown Biddeford and students have spent considerable time comparing city blocks then and now. She also gave her students a little tour around the many items McArthur Library already had on Maine Memory Network and let them pick and choose which images to focus in on.

The surprising result: Students were drawn to images Denise never would have imagined would be intriguing to them, or eliciting so much discussion. A number of photographs of sewer construction on Main Street in 1914-1915 captivated one student because of the massive machinery and blue-collar subject matter. A photograph of a small boy, perhaps no more than six, selling cigarettes, launched a discussion about acceptable practices then and now. Old-time swimsuits on beachcombers at Biddeford Pool drew shock and amazement, and prompted one young woman to begin investigating fashion of the period.

The lesson here is: Don’t assume you know what will appeal to students, or even the general public. Test the market!

2) Everyone loves a scandal. Once the group got going on this topic, it was hard to stop. Murders motivated by race, political shenanigans, street gangs of the 1940s-50s, bodies caught in mill machinery and run over by trolleys… it sounds like what’s on TV tonight. In fact, it’s all part of Biddeford’s history. Every town has its share of gritty tales that have the potential to reach out and grab an audience by the collar. If they are fun and intriguing to read, imagine how much pleasure students might get unearthing the gory details. Mind you, there’s tremendous learning potential in these stories, too. Think of the horrors of child labor and how instructive such a topic might be to today’s youth.

3) Make overt connections with today. Quick way to bore someone to tears: Avoid acknowledging in any way that the past has bearing on, or relationship to, the present. History is a long, entwined, unbroken chain of events that carefully followed, leads straight to this very moment. Highlighting these connections for students (or anyone) can be incredibly enriching. Consider a diary from the 1920s that McArthur Library director Dora St. Martin is dutifully transcribing. In it, the young female author–a mill worker–recorded her daily adventures, big and small, such as a long list of all the movies she saw. And juicy stuff, too: another woman getting called the “B-word” in the street, gossipy tidbits about who likes who. Sound not so different from today? Students will soak this stuff up as they realize that people then had much the same inner lives as people now.

4) Treat the audience like investigators on a trail. Paraphrasing Debe Averill, Bangor’s team leader: “Don’t call it research. Call it detective work!” Don’t all of our senses perk up when we catch the scent of a good mystery? The Biddeford discussion offered several rich ways to turn the work into a hunt for the truth. How about literal scavenger hunts for local historical resources? Break students into pairs or teams and have them locate the plaques, memorials, statues, and monuments and uncover their reason for being. Or stick them on a bus with your historical society representative, as was suggested last night, and do a tour around town to locate (and map?) now-forgotten buildings and sites of importance. Open up ancient city directories and have students find the location of their current residence and uncover what it used to be. Then have them write about the experience as a sort of meta-exhibit: “We set out to find… and here’s what happened…”

5) Don’t forget to pick a theme. While self-selection for students is important, do provide parameters and structure before letting them go to town. This can be as simple as making sure all the potential topics and materials relate to an over-arching theme. In Biddeford, it’s neighborhoods. One person questioned whether everything students might find interesting would fall under that umbrella, but it is pretty broad. Fashion, for instance, might be looked at ethnically or culturally–and Biddeford history is full to bursting with different ethnic groups. Seek the happy medium of a unifying vision with lots of different perspectives gazing toward it. (Your readers will thank you, too.)

So, there you have it. Many substantive tips and tricks from the clever minds in Biddeford!

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About mainechp

Maine Community Heritage Project at Maine Historical Society
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