Historical Thinking = Be There or Be Square

SewardHouse1This past weekend, I spent a beautiful Saturday morning with a group of teachers touring the Seward House in Auburn, NY and then working with a set of primary sources to investigate the relationship of William Seward and his family to important historical events of the 19th century, such as the Underground Railroad, the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s assassination and the purchase of the Alaska territory from Russia. The house and the amazing collection of artifacts from the Seward family made us think about them not just as historical figures on a page in a textbook, but as real people, who lived and worked, celebrated and grieved. Thinking about their lives and placing them in the context of their house and their history was a great way to spend a Saturday morning!

WesleyanChapelIn May, I was with another group of teachers at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. We watched a short film about the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, were guided around the reconstructed Wesleyan Chapel which was the site of the Convention, viewed exhibits which detail the Women’s Rights Movement through the 1990s and spent time exploring primary sources about the Convention and the women, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would become leaders in the movement. It was another Saturday morning filled with good historical thinking!

3Over the past three years with the Teaching American History grant, it has also been my good fortune to be able to travel with groups of teachers to visit Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, the Museum and the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia and the Tenement Museum in New York City. Each time I have come away with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the people and events that these places represent. I have learned about history in a way that is not possible through text or even through video or virtual field trips. The power of the place was the key. I had to be “there”.

I have often had conversations with teachers about the tremendous value of field trips to historical and cultural sites for students’ learning . Studies have shown that these kinds of experiences are particularly beneficial for students in high needs schools, who often lack the experiential background and the resources that can help them succeed in school.

But what about the value of these experiences for teachers? I think it is as important for teachers’ learning as it is for students. Being “there” contextualizes history so that teachers can see how historical events and people are connected to places and times. Why this person? Why this place? Why that time? These personal experiences help teachers convey the impact of William Seward on politics and emancipation, the courage and audacity of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the importance of Washington’s life as a farmer along the Potomac and the experience of immigrant life on the Lower East Side of New York in 1913.

Even when resources at schools limit field trips for students, teachers can enrich their own knowledge and passion for history by visiting museums, historic sites and national parks. In Central New York, we don’t have to travel far to find excellent opportunities: the Onondaga Historical Museum, the Erie Canal Museum, the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum, Fort Stanwix, the 1890 House Museum, the Central New York Living History Center, and the George Eastman House, as well as the Seward House and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls are just a few of the places within an easy drive where teachers can explore and experience our rich history. Teachers can find hundreds of places to contextualize and deepen their understanding of history and use this to enrich their students learning.

This summer, how will you engage in the historical power of place? Be there or be square!



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