Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Why I Teach History with Place

Summer workshop and fellowship acceptances and rejections have started rolling in.  I won't know about all of them that I applied for until May 20, but I've started planning my summer travels.  Working on another blog post the other day, I came across the draft of a post I started in January but never finished.  Although I want to build on it sometime in the future, I feel it's appropriate given the season and the object-based and place-based posts I've got on deck.

Why I Teach History with Place [Draft]

I had the honor of attending the best PD of my teaching career in three different locations this past summer and, at each site, I walked in the footsteps of the past.  Standing on the hill of Monticello's south dependency this summer, a thought came to my mind: "This is where Jefferson walked".  Now, you can praise or damn Jefferson to kingdom come, but you can't steal the history nerd goosebumps that accompanied that realization.

I ate in Jefferson's garden and imagined him pottering around, making notes about peas.  I stood "in the room where it happened," was dwarfed by his "Indian Hall," and walked through the dependencies and slave cabins that make up the hidden story of Monticello.

Unlike textbooks and documentaries, places force a person to adjust.  Modern bodies are often out of sorts with historic stairs, ceiling heights, and furniture.  Add unpredictable temperatures and smells and the experience intensifies.  Put historic tools or objects in someone's hands and ask them to complete a task and watch what happens.  I teach history with place because it forces change.

After a short train ride and a few days exploring Alexandria on my own, I settled in for the George Washington Teacher Institute at Mount Vernon.  I watched the sun rise over the Potomac from the same spot as George Washington and rode the boundaries of his farms, just like he did (minus the horse and with the comfort of air conditioning).

There are two fences off the main entrance of the main house at Mount Vernon.  Beyond those fences is where the work of Mount Vernon happened and where the human engine of the estate operated.  It was a powerful experience to stand there and imagine the lives on both sides of the fences: master and slave.  Of course we know about the abstract differences and separation between black and white, but place also teaches about the physical separation.  I teach history with place because it defines abstract ideas.

There are two museums in Deerfield Village, a day trip from New Haven, where we explored the infamous raid of 1704 with historian John Demos.  More than just exploring the raid, we explored how the story of raid is told and asked what implications that had for teaching colonial American history.

Library of Congress

Historic Deerfield offers a picturesque walk along well-maintained streets and tours inside select homes, including the Wells-Thorn house.  Costumed docents lead visitors through an architectural reconstruction of several interior layouts and styles from 1725 to the 1850s.  Historic Deerfield offers classes, demonstrations, a well-appointed gift shop, and colorful maps.  Around the corner is the Memorial Hall Museum, run by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, and stacked to the rafters with local history.  This is a true local/regional museum with a variety of object ranging from antique farm implements to modern Native American art and even a famed door from the 1704 raid complete with hatchet marks.

Historic Deerfield provides a rich educational service and excels at maintaining historical properties.  They also know how to continually attract people to Deerfield, Mass.  However, that door in Memorial Hall told me more about the Deerfield Raid than an entire day just walking through town.  Objects and place combined to tell the story of an event from both sides. The home on the other side of that door was a fortress and an obstacle.  I teach history with place because it teaches perspective.  

I would encourage you to start incorporating place into your teaching.  Even if students haven't been there, bring your experiences back to them.  Show videos, pictures, and objects.  Skype or do a Google Hangout with them if you're somewhere while school's in session.  Take a virtual field trip, create a Thinglink, have a Twitter chat with a curator, something!  Place can add dimension to any subject area, not just history.  

Get out and explore, but don't forget to bring something back with you.


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