Archivist Challenge

March 2, 2011 by bgaskins · 2 Comments · TAH

It has been a few weeks since the Charleston Archival Challenge and now I am thinking about the things I want to take away from such a professional development.

● The learning focused on the learner. The workshop was not to necessary enhance the performance of the teacher in the classroom. It was all about the learner. In this case the teachers.

● What I hoped the teacher would gain is to learn the importance of primary sources are in writing history. The big take away was how primary sources can be used as a teaching tool. I would asked the learner what role did the primary source help you understand the historical topic?

“Forty Berkeley County elementary school teachers passed archival boot camp at The Citadel on February 5. With guidance from area archivists and historians, the teachers learned the nuts and bolts of historical research, drawing on the documentary riches of Charleston’s archives and museums. After being divided into groups of six, the teachers were assigned topics, dispatched to various archives across the city, and tasked with designing a power point presentation—all in less than four hours. At the Avery Research Center, the teachers gathered photographs and read first-hand accounts of local labor strikes of cigar factory workers just after World War II and of low wage hospital workers in 1969. Handwritten letters and diaries uncovered at the South Carolina Historical Society and the Charleston County Public Library revealed how ordinary Charlestonians coped with the Earthquake of 1886 and the Great Depression. Other material there documented the construction of the spectacular “Ivory City” for the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition of 1901-1902, which was held where Hampton Park and The Citadel sit today. Teachers directed to The Citadel Archives and Museum learned of the experiences of women at the college and its response to World War II.”

The past year and half I have the perfect challenge of facilitating a Teaching American History Grant for my school district. It has been the most perfect job in mapping out a learning journey through American History for K-5 teachers. We are in our second year of the grant and 40 teachers were chosen from 7 schools to participate in this year long learning initiative. The focus of the grant is to build content knowledge in US History with these teachers though once in a life time experiences. I get to collaborate with several historical organization in the Charleston and surrounding area including the Citadel and the College of Charleston. Plus the grand finale is a 7 night and 8 day journey to Jamestown, Williamsburg, Montecello, Washington, Gettysburg, and much more.

“The primary goal of this grant is to increase the historical content knowledge of our K-5 social studies teachers and introduce them to new ways of engaging their students in their study of history. We are very grateful that our grant allows us to offer our teachers a ‘once in a lifetime experience in learning about our country’s history’.”

Saturday, February 5 was one of those experiences. In the Spring of 2010 I sat down with Citadel Oral History Program director and history professor Kerry Taylor to brainstorm ways that these teachers can see how primary sources are used to write history. I never imagined the direction that would evolve. It started as Kerry mentioned the access we have to archives. Then our discussion turned to reality TV shows. Then the idea sprung into shape. At first I was reluctant until I heard Dr. Taylor’s thinking. The plan came together a few weeks ago. We had the expert help of archivist from the Charleston Public Library, the Avery Institute, the South Carolina Historical Society, and The Citadel.

The program also gave the archivists a chance to work with teachers, who they particularly value for their important work in the classroom. Archivist Mary Jo Fairchild of the South Carolina Historical Society said she was “elated to see groups of teachers pouring over old ledgers and photographs with wide-eyed enthusiasm all the while talking about how they planned to incorporate what they were learning into their curriculum at school.” Fairchild also expressed her appreciation for “the sheer innovation of the program – having a cooperative spirit amidst so many new discoveries was incredibly energizing.” Christina Shedlock of the South Carolina History Room at the County Library echoed Fairchild’s enthusiasm at having the opportunity to introduce the library’s collections to new users. “It was fantastic to share our material with so many new researchers and to see the teachers’ excitement as they worked with primary documents. I’m sure they will pass the positives of the research experience to their students, and it’s my hope that Mary Jo and I will see some of those students in the future and be able to share our resources with them as well.” Shedlock also said that she was “impressed by the quality and content of the presentations the teachers put together. It’s amazing what they were able to create in just a few hours, and they really stepped up to the challenge of working with numerous sources and putting them all together in a well-organized and meaningful way.”

The teachers were more enthusiastic once they got the archives and started digging in to the research. We made it easy for them. The archivist at each site had pulled together books, newspaper clippings, photos, pamphlets, etc and several of the teachers had time to travel to more than one archive.

The atmosphere was intense and a spirit of healthy competition filled the Bond Hall auditorium as the teachers reconvened after lunch for their presentations. A team of judges, including community activist Bill Saunders and historians John White of the College of Charleston and Mary Battle of Emory University, awarded the group charged with investigating the cigar workers strike top honors for their crisp and colorful presentation that included bits of an audio interview with a strike leader as well as snatches of a song sung on the picket line.

The four judges were present for the presentations. New leadership roles developed during the day and presentations were both informative and awesome. These teachers not only reported the facts but told stories from perspectives of real people of the time. New voices were heard and everyone was confident in what they had accomplished. I was so proud of each person.

In her evaluation of the program, one native Charlestonian expressed amazement at “never hearing about most of these events that helped shape our local communities.” Though many teachers reported wanting more time in the archives, they generally agreed with the teacher who wrote: “It broadened all of our individual outlooks. Thank you for pushing us out of our comfort zones.”

What do I hope for the big take back to the classrooms?

● What intrigued this group were the stories they found and the questions that arose from the pictures and other documents. The little stories motivated them to read more. The stories pushed them to ask questions as did other primary sources that were available. I hope that they will use stories, objects, photos, and other primary sources to capture or peak the interests of their young learners. I hope they will in turn honor and value the questions kids will ask. Use those questions as a spring board to take them above and beyond the standards.

● They would find ways to make learning in their classrooms active and engaging. Teach the learners to use the literacy skill they presently have to learn from primary sources. Use books with stories to fill their imagination and use books as hooks to want learn more.

● Each team used the time to process knowledge and to construct new knowledge. They had a short amount of time to research, comprehend, create a presentation, and be prepared to present. The adult learner has more group and literacy skill than an elementary skill. They understand the process. I would hope they would take the time to think through processes of each step and how the decision making was made. And use that information to scaffold collaborative learning in their classrooms. These skills have to be learned and it has to be taught. Our young learners don’t have these skill automatically.

● I hope everyone would take the time to do some deep thinking about “learning being social.” I remember that on the onset of the day when directions were giving people were not as pleased. As I traveled through rain to each of the archives I noticed how social learning had become. The teams were happy. Individuals were reading and sharing with other team members what they were learning. I heard question and then attempts through collaboration to find the answer.

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