Teaching Innovations

Communities of Collaboration: Sources and Resources for Teaching Local History

Terrie L. Epstein, April 1991

On a Saturday each spring during the Organization of American Historians' annual meeting, a series of sessions focuses specifically on issues involving the teaching and learning of history. At the 1989 St. Louis meeting, one of the sessions centered on the teaching of local history at the precollegiate level. The session's three panelists presented information on projects that were far reaching in format and content. A common denominator, however, factored into all three projects: each had originated through the collaborative efforts of educators in schools, universities, and historical societies.

The first panelist, Mary Seematter, described her work at the Missouri Historical Society on the American History School Project. With the aid of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she and others have developed teaching materials on the history of St. Louis. The project aims to present the city's past through the use of concrete and comprehensible primary sources and to relate the history of St. Louis to national events and experiences.

To date the staff has published two units and will complete another eight in the next two or three years. The complete set will span selected topics on St. Louis's history from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Each unit includes a narrative which relates local events to national themes, a set of one- or two-day lesson plans centering on students' interpretations of one or more primary sources, and a set of visuals, reproduced as slides and paper prints. The images include photographs of people, paintings, buildings, maps, and artifacts. A written explanation accompanies each one.

Missouri Historical Society staff members and secondary school history teachers from the St. Louis area worked together in creating the completed units. They began by exchanging ideas on potential materials and activities. Staff members then selected primary documents and images from the Society's collections and wrote the narrative, lesson plans, and explanatory texts accompanying the images. The secondary-school teachers tested these materials in their classrooms and made suggestions for revisions. These revisions are reflected in the materials' final form.

Examples of individual lesson plans illustrate the project's goals of teaching students to interpret primary sources and to relate those interpretations to significant historical themes. One plan, for example, centers on the interpretation of an early twentieth-century state senate report on the working conditions of women. The document vividly portrays the experiences and expectations of working women, as well as businessmen's and reformers' attitudes towards women and work. In addition, a teacher can relate the information students acquire in examining the document to broad questions about reform in the progressive era, women and the struggle for suffrage and equal rights, and labor and its battles over wages and working conditions.

Other lesson plans illustrate how primary sources relating to local matters can complement and complicate traditional textbook accounts. One plan on antebellum St. Louis includes a long excerpt from a narrative of a St. Louis slave. Students are encouraged to compare and contrast William Well Brown's urban slavery experiences with the more commonly depicted textbook image of slaves on southern plantations. Brown's narrative also can serve as a springboard for discussion of national political events, such as the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott Case.

Overall, staff members at the Missouri Historical Society, in consultation with classroom teachers, have created the kinds of high quality resources teachers alone rarely have time to produce. Moreover, teachers who make the effort to integrate into their courses the materials from the Missouri Historical Society's American History School Project most likely will find it is well worth their time.

The second panelist, Marla Marantz, described how she enables her secondary-school students from Joplin, Missouri, to relate the history of their local communities to the broad themes of America's past. She does this by encouraging them to complete research projects on local topics and to compete in National History Day competitions. National History Day is an annual contest in which over 200,000 middle school and secondary-school students participate. Like science fair exhibits, students' history projects are judged at regional, state, and national competitions. Projects can take the form of research papers, performances, museum-type displays, or media presentations. Marla Marantz's involvement with the program is intense and long standing; over the past six years, more than 100 of her students have won over 65 district, state, and national awards.

Because they work on topics relating to local communities, Ms. Marantz's students spend considerable time doing research at local and state libraries and historical societies. And because this is the first in-depth research project most students have pursued, they at times rely quite heavily on the assistance of library and historical society staff members. Ms. Marantz noted that the time these professionals spend supervising secondary-school students has paid off in the past. Seven of her students' displays are exhibited permanently at local and state museum and historical societies, while three other displays have become part of traveling exhibits @DROPCAP = Ms. Marantz then showed slides of some of her students' award-winning displays. One young man, in an effort to find out why a creek near his home had been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as the worst polluted area in the country, interviewed residents of surrounding communities and miners who had worked in area mines. He then researched the region's economic development, the state's laws and regulations on pollution control, and the technological changes affecting the mining industry. His research resulted in his winning first place in the district and state competitions; he finished fourth at the national level.

Another student documented the life of a Joplin, Missouri, industrialist. To detail his financial, civic, political, and personal activities, the student interviewed the industrialist's descendants and examined documents at local and state archives, museums, and government offices. Her final display, entitled, "Thomas Connor: Frontier Capitalist," illustrated how one man's involvement in local affairs both influenced and was influenced by national events. The young woman's project won first place at the district, state, and national levels.

For classroom teachers like Marla Marantz and other professionals who take the time to train secondary-school students in the rigors of historical research, the rewards can be significant at more than one level. Not only do students learn valuable research skills, they also come to recognize the relationships between the history of their local communities and larger contexts.

The third panelist, T. Harri Baker, a historian at the University of Arkansas, explained the production and dissemination of The Arkansas News. Proudly making its claim as the state's third largest circulated newspaper (55,000 copies printed per issue), The Arkansas News is coedited by Mr. Baker and Judy Dalton, a staff member at the Old State House Museum, Little Rock. Resembling a nineteenth-century newspaper in format and print, The Arkansas News is distributed biannually to public and private elementary schools, museums, and other public agencies. Each issue is filled with stories, editorials, advertisements, crossword puzzles, and other items of interest pertaining to a particular period or topic of the state's history.

The paper began in 1984 with the aid of a grant from the Arkansas Endowment for the Humanities. The contents of the first and subsequent issues are planned jointly by the paper's editors, university historians, and area teachers. The copy for each issue is then researched and written by historians and museum staffers. Each issue also contains a crossword puzzle, composed by an associate justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The spring 1989 issue is representative of the paper's content and format. Focusing on developments in transportation, articles range in topic and time from the first poorly traveled and unpaved territorial trails to the use of state and federal funds for highway construction and improvement. Photographs and graphics of all kinds accompany the text. There are, for example, reproductions of stagecoach and steamboat advertisements from the 1850s and 1860s and automobile advertisements from the 1920s and 1930s.

The paper also includes three state maps. The first details early nineteenth-century trails and river transportation routes, the second illustrates late nineteenth-century railroad lines, and the third demarcates the state's present-day highways. It is clear from these maps that the physical location of the state's major transportation routes have changed little over time, yet the change in modes of transport have made long and arduous travel a thing of the past.

In addition to the paper, the editors publish an attending Teachers' Guide. Along with a solution to the crossword puzzle, the guide includes bibliographical material on events or persons mentioned, suggestions for field trips to state museums, and a chronology of state and national events relevant to the topics covered in the paper. Attractive in its design and comprehensive in its content, The Arkansas News is the type of tool teachers can take into their classrooms for years to come.

The perspectives on teaching local history presented by the three panelists reflect national and state efforts to improve history instruction in the schools. Reports written by the Bradley Commission for History in the Schools and the National Commission for Social Studies in the Schools, as well as the History–Social Science Framework adopted by the California State Board of Education, recommend that school districts include as part of a middle school or high school curriculum a course in local or state history. Copies of or information on the above-mentioned reports—each of which emanated from Commissions or Advisory Boards comprised of classroom teachers, historians, and educators—can be obtained from the following addresses: Bradley Commission on History in Schools, 24898 Fawn Drive, North Olmsted, OH 44070; National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, c/o American Historical Association, 400 A Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003; and History–Social Science Framework for California Public Schools, Bureau of Publications Sales, California State Department of Education, P.O. Box 271, Sacramento, CA 95802-0271. The reports suggest that the inclusion of such courses not only enables students to understand the evolution of their local communities but may encourage them to participate in community affairs.

There are other opportunities characteristic of and perhaps unique to the study of local history. Like those who have worked with the Missouri Historical Society's American History School Project or The Arkansas News, teachers can design or create classroom materials from accessible primary sources. In planning field trips or independent student projects, teachers can take advantage of their proximity to historical museums, homes, or other sites relevant to the topics being taught. For guidelines and activities for teaching local history, see Fay Metcalf and Matthew Downey, Using Local History in the Classroom (Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1982). The aims of these efforts are to enable students to create connections between past and present, cause and consequence, local and national event or experience. These continuing collaborations among classroom teachers, historians, and educators serve to further such aim.

Terrie L. Epstein is an assistant professor of education, Boston College, and chair of the Organization of American Historians' Committee on Teaching.