Giving kids an authentic and engaging learning experience is a primary goal of the Maine Community Heritage Project. How to do that rests on a single principle: Put the students front and center. The tenets are fairly simple, but they go a long way toward ensuring a love and respect for history over the long-term.
- Celebrate the students as integral members of the project team–make a big deal of their involvement. Allow them as much choice in subject matter and process as possible.
- Provide fun, interactive sessions with community members, both in the classroom and in the field, who know the subject matter inside and out.
- Put historical materials in the students’ (gloved) hands and anoint them “history detectives” on a quest to uncover the stories behind them.
Take Bangor, for instance. You might think Cohen Middle School teacher Ron Bilancia’s earlier career as a police officer influenced his students’ choice of the notorious Brady Gang for their MCHP exhibit topic. It was, however, an entirely democratic decision. Ron gave his social studies class a survey of multiple topics and asked them to vote. Topping out at #1 was “crime.”
With some help from team member Bill Cook, head of Special Collections at Bangor Public Library, “crime” morphed into a focus on the Gang, whose multi-state bank robbing spree ended in a fiery shoot-out in Bangor in 1937, and for which the library has a number of historic treasures including photos, newspaper clippings, and a letter from J. Edgar Hoover. Suspenseful and seamy, it provides an exciting hook into the larger story of the criminal justice system in the early part of the 20th century.
In addition to Bill bringing in items and running a scanning workshop, and Cohen librarian Priscilla Soucie assisting with research, Ron has had local historian Dick Shaw talk to the students. Plans even call for a visit, in period clothing, from relatives of the Bangor store owner whose employee tipped off the police. Short of a dramatic interpretation of the events (but not too dramatic!), you can’t bring history much more alive than this.
Although strict budgets and tightly-scheduled class periods can make going off school grounds difficult these days, there’s no better way to put students at the center of the project than to literally surround them with history at the local historical society. The big advantage of the on-site tour is the opportunity for students to self-select items of interest instead of someone else doing it for them.
As reported in earlier blog posts, both the Biddeford and Hallowell teams have taken students to the site of “the stuff.” But students in Scarborough, Guilford, and Blue Hill have also visited their historical societies, and the Lincoln, Bangor, and Cumberland/North teams are hoping to make field trips happen soon.
Rex Webb’s 8th graders visited Guiford Historical Society on October 14. By the time the first group arrived at 9:30 AM, GHS secretary and curator Nena Schulz had been there since 8:00 AM getting ready. She marveled at the number of young people crowded into the small, but chock-full, building. “I don’t think I have ever seen so many kids all at once at the society since I have been [here–starting] 17 years ago!”
After an initial tour and in between munching on cookies, the students worked on their assignment. Calling it a “treasure hunt,” Rex had asked them to write down three topics of interest as they explored the collections. From there, they would whittle the list down to one and have a week to learn more about it. One of the highlights of the hunt was one young woman’s excited discovery that she was related to Louis Wilbur Trafton, a decorated WWII hero, honored in a large wall display at the society.
In total, about 50 kids visited that day. Nena had each sign his or her name in the guest book. “After all,” she explained, “50 years from now they might come back [to] find it!”
A month later, Holt House, home of the Blue Hill Historical Society, hosted a dozen 8th graders from the Consolidated School. Teacher Della Martin brought them to meet John Roberts, president of the society, and tour the Federal period building. He showed them items related to shipbuilding, their primary exhibit topic, and a slideshow he had put together on “Blue Hill and The Sea.”
They also scrutinized letters from an 1840s sea captain that had not previously been looked at in any detailed way. “The students felt important putting on the gloves,” said Della, “and being among the first to really examine these letters.”
Prior to their Holt House visit, and because teachers like Della appreciate that there is a larger context to the story, the group had taken a field trip to the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport to learn about the history of Maine seafaring generally.
And they’ve since continued their research and skill-building in the classroom, with help from local experts like Blue Hill Public Library Assistant Director Brook Minner and community member Rick Sawyer, who has helped with scanning.
A decade, two decades, or sure, even 50 years hence–it is this kind of student-driven, community-rich learning that will be remembered. Names and dates, memorized for quizzes, may vanish into the ether. But the exhilarating process of being empowered to work as real historians, and the relationships created and nurtured as a result, will only grow more solid and meaningful over time.