In Biddeford, the Focus is Hands-on History

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Student Samantha Millette views the world through historic lenses

What is it about the white gloves? That’s what Denise Doherty, Project Aspire teacher at Biddeford High School, wants to know. They’ve become a big hit in her class. One student took his home; some have tucked them away in their school mailboxes. And they’ve all gotten into the habit of slipping them on during workshop sessions with the MCHP team.

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Renee DesRoberts prepares to show students mill worker Beatrice Lord's diary

Perhaps it’s because the gloves–on the surface, a simple necessity for handling historic items–are really symbolic of something larger. Technical expertise. Professionalism. Care and respect. When you don those gloves and prepare to handle something special, you are, by extension, pretty special yourself.

Or, okay–they’re just darn cool.

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Students begin the investigation process by sorting through photographs

But I think it’s more than that. Especially because this team–which, along with Denise, includes McArthur Public Library staff Renee DesRoberts, Brooke Faulkner, and Sally Leahey, as well as Biddeford Historical Society’s Raymond Gaudette–has, from day one, expected all that adherence to standards and professional behavior from the students.

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McArthur Library staff member Brooke Faulkner looks on as students view a photo they've just scanned

The team’s goal is simple and direct: Model for the dozen or so students what doing good history is all about–and then have them do it. Elevate each one to the level of History Detective and give them all the training and tools they need to meticulously investigate the past and reveal, for themselves, Biddeford’s colorful and complex history.

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A rare sampler of practice stitches done by a Biddeford mill worker

To date, students have handled, selected, scanned, photographed, researched, transcribed, and cataloged a wide variety of items–snapshots, letters, diaries, and other documents, clothing, needlework, cups and dishes, military medals and war-related artifacts, mill machine parts, and much more.

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Pages 38-39 of Beatrice Lord's movie-listings from 1916: Entries include "Diana of the Follies" starring Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin's "One A.M."

Along the way, they have learned intimate details about the lives of people who appear in the photos, wrote the letters, wore the clothing, or handled the items. Laborers on the massive downtown sewer construction project in the early 1900s. Sunbathers at Biddeford Pool. A Civil War soldier whose canteen survived the journey. Mill worker Beatrice Lord’s penchant for recording in her diary all the movies she saw–and their stars–in the early part of the 20th century–a list that spans 48 pages!

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Teacher Denise Doherty practices photography with a student

Not surprisingly, these objects that students can pick up and hold and imagine themselves using have proved especially popular. And because the team wants students to direct the selection of many of the items to include on the website, it became apparent that a little more in-depth training in digital photography was in order.

So at the team’s request, MHS sent Image Services Coordinator Dani Fazio to facilitate a hands-on 90-minute workshop on digital photography techniques. Far more than a quick-and-dirty “lights, camera, action” session, Dani’s training schooled the students in everything from setting up a mini studio, to various shooting angles and aperture settings, and fine lighting details like reducing glare on shiny objects.

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Denise and students look on as Dani adjusts the tripod

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Dani watches as a student adjusts the shutter speed

Students took turns adjusting the tripod, moving lights, and changing the shutter speed. Multiple photos were taken of a single item–such as a pair of fancy, hand-crocheted children’s gloves–to get the best possible digital representation of history.

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A student corrects the camera angle

It’s not often these students are asked to exhibit the kind of patience required for such detailed and repetitive work. But by and large, they were an attentive group and some students clearly had an eye for design and a natural aptitude for the technical minutiae.

That’s what makes the team members proud to be a part of MCHP, and why they have put so much effort into every detail–and will continue to do so–for the students.

“I’m so glad they are the ones who get to do this project,” says Renee DesRoberts. “They really deserve it.”

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About mainechp

Maine Community Heritage Project at Maine Historical Society
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4 Responses to In Biddeford, the Focus is Hands-on History

  1. Renee says:

    The photo workshop was fun and incredibly informative for the students & the adults on our team. Dani is excellent, and we are lucky to have access to someone with expertise in photography *AND* education. Thanks MHS & Dani for hitting this one out of the ballpark!!!

  2. Pingback: Front and Center: The MCHP Student Experience « LIVING HISTORY: The Maine Community Heritage Project Weblog

  3. Fran Pollitt says:

    Dear Larissa,
    How I enjoy going through this blog and putting faces onto the MCHP participants. Thanks so much for doing this. It really enhances the experience for me, and makes my heart pit a pat. I see every groups’ MMN images, and know what they are working on, but reading about how they are doing it, and seeing the students’ working hard, is very wonderful. Thanks.

  4. Sam Millette says:

    wow, there are lots of pictures of me. my boyfriend told me a couple days ago that he found pictures of me on the internet. it was weird because i didnt know what he was talking about. but then i saw this and i was like, wow, i cant believe he saw that…

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