Teaching Social Studies = Layers (of Coquina)

Coquina, if you don’t know, is a sedimentary rock formed from shells and it is used in a lot of the buildings in St. Augustine, Florida, most notably the Castillo de San Marcos, the fort built on the site of the original Spanish garrison established in 1565. Coquina is very light and porous, made up of horizontal layers. Even though these crumbly layers can be easily chiseled apart, the thick coquina walls of the fortress were able to absorb or deflect projectiles and have lasted a surprisingly long time. Why the trivia lesson on coquina? I recently had the privilege of attending the National Council for History Education Conference in St. Augustine, Florida, a small city full of layers, of coquina and of history. It started me thinking about how attending a conference, or visiting a new place is full of layers.

First there is the surface layer. Modern day Florida in March – very nice after the icy weather of upstate New York! St. Augustine is full of friendly people, palm trees, beautiful views, and excellent food! As I said, very nice, but let’s dig deeper.

The Gilded Age Layer: The conference was held at Flagler College, named for Henry Flagler, a Gilded Age industrialist who partnered with John D. Rockefeller to found the Standard Oil Company. In 1888, Flagler built the Hotel Ponce de León, is now known as Ponce de Leon Hall, the centerpiece of the college. The Ponce, as it is known, is a National Historic Landmark and a Gilded Age tour de force of architecture and building innovation wired for electricity by Thomas Edison and with windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The conference keynotes, sessions and exhibits held in this environment were both entertaining and enlightening. I came away with materials I can “relocate” for my own use and share with others.

The Colonial Layer: Another layer deeper into the conference and St. Augustine is about the diversity of people that we meet and create relationships with. St Augustine was founded by the Spanish. It was alternately attacked by the French and British and retaken by the Spanish and was ultimately ceded to the young United States. These layers are often found underground, hidden and waiting to be unearthed by the city’s staff archeologist and team of volunteers. We had a fascinating (if bumpy) trolley tour of the colonial sites and of the archeology lab. Very cool! And we spent an evening at the Colonial Quarter, getting an idea of what life would have been like in St. Augustine during those years. The people I met at the conference were equally diverse as the archeological finds we saw at the lab. I met Carol Berkin, reintroduced myself to Joanne Freeman (who I had met through the TAH grant), lunched with Barbara Ashbrook (the Assistant Director of the NEH Education Programs), reconnected with my friend Lynne from Virginia and met many other teachers and historians from Colorado, Florida, Texas, California, Georgia, North Carolina, and more.

The Indigenous Layer: This layer is harder to find, for it is often buried deeply in the ground and not always recognized for its significance when we see it. In St. Augustine, there is a sense of those who lived there when the Europeans arrived, the Timucua, but their presence is ephemeral at best, since the tribe no longer exists. Our best representation of the civilizations that preceded the Europeans was at the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. There, several individuals of Cherokee ancestry respectfully represented what would have been a trading party to the Timucua, and explained some of their traditions and beliefs. This hidden layer at the conference gets down to the basics of why we are all there. Camaraderie, learning, finding resources, having unique experiences are all part of it, but I think it is the human drive to find out what’s there, below the surface, beyond what is easily seen and touched and to learn how it is all connected.

Teaching, especially in social studies and especially now, is all about this drive to understand the multiple layers of our world, past, present and future. It’s about the layers of both skills and knowledge that we want our students to have to prepare them to be active and informed citizens. In chiseling apart these layers, we find value that keeps us going deeper in our learning and that of our students. What layers do you see in your teaching?


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