Teaching Innovations

Historic Places: Their Use as Teaching Tools

Rita G. Koman, February 1994

Virginia, the state in which I live, contains an abundance of historic places. Some, like Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier, are well known nationally. Others, such as Shenandoah Indian Mounds, Brandy Station, and Tredegar Iron Works, are barely known by Virginians, much less by people elsewhere. But these, like countless, more obscure sites, can be integrated into the teaching of our national history.

Every town, community, state, and region in the nation had a beginning and now has a history. The National Register of Historic Places lists over sixty thousand sites throughout the nation—literally hundreds in every state. Some are renowned, others are not. But all are rich sources of historical information touching nearly every facet of our history. Sometimes entire city blocks, such as a chunk of Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, or a collection of textile mills, like the one in Fall River, Massachusetts, represent a theme of history that is on the register. Entire acres of landscape, such as Native American archaeology sites or former bonanza farmlands, are listed also.

Common types of buildings that reflect the everyday history of ordinary people are itemized alphabetically by state along with famous architectural landmarks. Local history is particularly well documented, even though these properties, which can illustrate the local significance of national events, are generally ignored by textbooks. Your community might be the birthplace of a prominent national figure or a local hero. Perhaps a particular ethnic or religious group settled and started your town. An old railroad station may have been built as a result of turf battles between Wall Street tycoons thousands of miles away. Every place has a story to tell. These stories are the backbone of American history.

By linking the written record to tangible local places, many of which are publicly accessible, teachers can bring history closer to life. Students need to perceive the importance of their immediate surroundings in order to create an awareness of who they are and how the environment affected national accomplishments and shortcomings. Historic sites permit media-age students to have hands-on experiences with primary sources. To be able to analyze historical values and to understand their relevance to the national character, sensory skills must be fine-tuned. This process will raise a consciousness about the significance of history in defining and reinforcing America's unique identity. Personal experiences involving historical places provide reality for an in-depth exploration—they can be seen, touched, and enjoyed. The imagination can recreate history in the mind from which an appreciation of a past perceived more broadly will grow.

One of the most fascinating lectures I have ever heard concerning colonial religion was delivered by a noted William and Mary professor to a seminar of awed teachers from across the country who were assembled inside an eighteenth-century church in Virginia's Northern Neck. Still in regular use by local members, this Episcopalian Church was a living document of human history. Standing in the pulpit and addressing the seminar like a congregation in the fashion of an eighteenth-century minister, this professor explained the design of the entire parish glebe, or original site: how the church represented the social gathering place for the white people of the surrounding plantations; where politics and plantation economics were discussed by the men outside while the women dutifully seated themselves and their children in assigned pews inside; why the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments were located on particular walls in relation to the altar in the Anglican scheme of religious worship; how the church, as the only acknowledged religion of the colony, served to represent the English heritage and government; and why the antique tombstones listed engraved particulars, such as "gentleman, militiaman, and assemblyman," still visible after more than two hundred years of weathering. This church represented a continuity of religious belief acknowledged today as Episcopalian but known as Anglican in colonial times. For a brief vicarious period, I was an English plantation mistress engrossed in a Sunday sermon. I imagined the visiting Washingtons seated across the aisle and the Lees, who were regular members, in a front-row pew. This is the sense of reality that can be generated by historic-site learning activities.

Students can learn to empathize with the stability historic places provide by seeing the past embedded in the present. Sites must, however, have relevance for what is being taught and act as an enrichment to provide depth of understanding for students. Sites must support the course content in order to be an integral facet. When deliberating about the use of a historic site, ask the following questions: What can the place tell students about their community, their college, the local people, or the diverse cultures, social classes, or heritages in the area? How is this place connected to the broader currents of history and to the ideas being taught to students? How might this place illuminate significant trends, events, ideas, or principles? Will slides, transparencies, or photographs arranged on a bulletin board provide an ample experience for students should on-site visitation not be possible? Once teachers feel positive about how a site can contribute to student understanding, they can prepare students for a real hands-on experience.

Building on what they know from their reading of textbooks, supplementary sources, or literature, teachers can connect students to the unknown elements of the site by making challenging inquiries that require their use of higher-order thinking skills. Start with a preparation worksheet of what to look for when they visit. Make them ask questions about why this particular site is where it is. Continue to prod them: What elements of this place relate to the natural environment? How did the people living here use this space or interact with this environment? Help students to see how the site is relevant to the curriculum as well as to the present. What is different today from one hundred to two hundred years ago? Encourage students to judge the site's significance in terms of local, regional, or national history so they can readily see how historical events affected ordinary people like themselves.

Make frequent connections by inference or direct statement between local historic sites and major historical trends throughout a course. For instance, ask students how New Deal crop supports helped or hindered the local citizens of Cobb County, Georgia; Douglas County, Kansas; or Sweetwater County, Wyoming. As a result, students will learn to make such an application when a specific local site is exemplified for their study. That is when they will achieve the maximum educational impact possible from using historic places. Sensory contact on a site can stir their feelings of what it must have been like to live, work, or worship there. The preservation of the roots of our towns and communities suddenly takes on value and becomes important to students because they understand the relationship of these roots to our national heritage.

Unlike teachers of American history, those who teach about other parts of the world may not be able to take students directly to sites. They can, nevertheless, investigate the use of local substitutes. Symbolism has always been important to people. All national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups have used familiar symbols from their homelands. For example, in western Virginia, many German, English, and Scotch-Irish laid out farms and built houses in a fashion similar to those left behind. The Museum of American Frontier Culture, near Staunton, Virginia, has reconstructions of each of these types of farms to illustrate life as it once existed for the early pioneers in this region. Emphasis here is placed upon cultures, lifestyles of the featured places, and the role played by these people in the settlement, development, and expansion of America. Similar original or reconstructed sites are scattered around the United States. Once found, they can be used by teachers in various fields of history.

Other possibilities to investigate are churches, ethnic neighborhoods, and museums. In large cities, for example, cathedrals tend to be copies of well-known European churches. Teachers in our nation's capital take field trips to the Washington National Cathedral to use it as an example of medieval architecture. Art museums frequently have rooms of furniture in historical settings and wings devoted to particular artistic periods from foreign lands that illustrate culture and lifestyles.

Since capitol buildings in such geographically diverse states as Utah, Iowa, and Kentucky copied classical architecture as did the architects of the national Capitol, teachers of world history could begin their use of historic sites by calling upon students to discover why this was so. Comparison and contrast activities could be used as follow-ups.

Significantly, however, college instructors of American history need not leave campus grounds to work historic places into an enrichment of their teaching. Nearly every college campus has one or more historic buildings that can elucidate the evolution of a particular collegiate landscape. The influence made upon college architecture by English, Spanish, French, and Scandinavian cultures, to list a few, can be studied to illustrate how local history relates to regional or national history. Artifacts and structures that are major cultural elements of the past abound across the United States. These countless examples of locally built environments can be linked to events and themes in regional, national, and even international history.

To begin using historic sites, teachers should determine the basis of a community's or college's history. Who started it? When? Why? Have local citizens tried to preserve a local landmark? What time frame does this history embrace? The property resources that best illustrate the history should be identified and plugged chronologically into the survey or topical history course. Highlighting the impact of national events upon ordinary citizens will take on new meaning when local sites are used.

My interest in teaching with historic places began about ten years ago. I determined that Manassas, Virginia, high school students needed to know that their town actually developed after the two Civil War battles fought four miles down the road. Newcomers to northern Virginia seemed surprised that the battlefields were not "in town." Native-born students thought lifestyles worth knowing about only existed elsewhere. While it was fun to show students 1860s transparencies depicting actual bivouacs overlaid on pictures of the school's front lawn, and to relate the tale about how a Confederate officer's body was uncovered by a bulldozer moving dirt for the football field, these examples predated the town's 1873 incorporation. Of far greater consequence for them was what happened here in the years after 1865. This was the genesis of my Manassas Mosaic project, designed to fill the need for local historical enrichment within the scope of teaching national history.

If looks on students' faces could kill, the mosaic project would have been terminated at initiation. Fortunately, a successful project emerged as each student assigned one facet of knowledge to uncover would return to the classroom to fit his or her discovery together with those of fellow classmates who were previously organized into topical committees. Oral interviews with elderly citizens revealed learning experiences that occurred in Virginia's first public elementary school and in northern Virginia's first vocational school for black youths, both built in our town. Trips taken to the new judiciary building to read court records revealed the original floor plans of the old 1894 courthouse now used by the arts guild; the Confederate cemetery headstones revealed names of deceased relatives; and older neighborhoods exhibited details about Victorian houses that even some present-day owners had ignored.

Student discoveries kept unfolding, escalating the excitement. They were being hooked on history! Whereas their previous knowledge of old Manassas Junction as a major railway crossroads drawing the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia into two national battles seemed obvious, now they were learning the less obvious "rest of the story." Recognition of the continuing importance of the railroads' presence in their town's development, and how ordinary citizens still relied upon the railroad, furnished students with insights about Manassas and about how national events affected it. The colored tiles of historical information came together in the classroom to create an enlightening Manassas Mosaic, a project that over the years was further developed with the assistance of our local museum.

Teaching with historic places stirs imagination and raises curiosity. Students learn to question everything with which they come into contact. Why? becomes a staple of their vocabulary: Why was the mill built next to the river? Why does that house have a central hall? Why did this town have a general store, a railroad station, a factory, a carefully detailed or haphazard platting of buildings? Finding answers to these questions reveals the humanity of history. Once discovery of the past is made in such a personal way, it becomes relatively easy to utilize and to fine-tune students' analytical and interpretive skills to a more sophisticated level.

As I did, teachers need to venture forth and take a good look at the wharf, the ethnic neighborhood, the abandoned factory, the old baseball park, or the country store. Create a project by developing a basic instruction sheet detailing what students are to do and how they are to do it. Determine how students should work: individually, in pairs, or in teams of three or four. Give them uniform guidelines for overall procedures: interviewing, visiting specific buildings ( i.e., courthouse, church, house), transcribing their research into a narrative, and reporting results to the class. Include a list of the specific questions to be asked about sites or documents. Stress the importance of the source of their information and the care to be taken in accurate note taking. Put students to work researching courthouse inventories, wills and deeds, architectural drawings in county planning departments, cemetery headstones, census, church, and synagogue records, family diaries, and city directories. Many businesses long gone left company records to local libraries or historical societies. Visit local museums. Do not overlook the wealth of information available in homestead and land records, genealogical studies, old maps, and tax records. Get students to focus on researching and analyzing community records and picture collections. They will develop a respect for old structures and sites as representatives from our past that speak directly to them in the present. In the process, they will bud as historians.

The possibilities of implementing this teaching innovation are virtually endless. Let your geographical location and what and whom you teach serve as starting points. Then identify what local or regional historic places can be used to provide a depth of understanding to the historical period being taught. Human settlement in America followed easily discernible patterns. Relate the national to the local, based upon the time frame of local development. If you teach in a city, or near one, you work amid a wealth of historic places awaiting student historians. It is possible to detect patterns of the past throughout cities at multiple historic sites. Colonial towns or plazas can be discerned, as they were expanded upon by shops and factories. Similarly, southern towns continue to exhibit all-white and all-black neighborhoods despite integration. Industrial centers continue to have workers' housing nearest the factories while owners reside in suburbia.

The impact that canals, railroads, and streetcars had on transportation relates to the evolution of the modern metropolis. In the twentieth century, ribbons of steel gave way to slabs of concrete, thus enabling more suburban development and accessibility to far-flung locations. Many historic places were recycled over decades of use by different generations of Americans or newly arrived ethnic groups. Putting history within a geographic setting establishes human activities in time and place. Students can learn to peel away the layers of the present to discover the past when they study sites, and in the process they can see the imprints left by their predecessors. Knowing the plurality found at historic sites and how different generations and ethnic groups contributed to them will expand student understanding of our multiple cultures.

Through exercises involving firsthand observation and comparison and contrast, students can learn to take readings of physical patterns made relevant from book knowledge or class lectures. To introduce site use, show to and review with students detailed pictures of major architectural styles. Help them to deconstruct the photos, reading them like a book from left to right and from top to bottom. Move on to specific pictures of historic places to be seen by students on a walking tour of an urban area. Pertinent questions to ask about these pictures might be: What distinguishing characteristics of this building do you see? What is its architectural style? How do you know? Has this building been altered in any way by additions or subtractions that have changed its style? How old do you think this building is? Why? What clues give you hints of age, location, and purpose? Why was this building constructed? Do you associate it with a particular historical period, geographical location, event, or ethnic group?

When you believe students understand how to read historic places, take them, or direct them, as individuals, pairs, or teams, to wander through urban neighborhoods and business districts. Give them specific directions about where to go and what to look for—church, house, shop. Start them out with easily identifiable sites until they can naturally distinguish the visual evidence. At the next class session, review their findings for historical accuracy, making sure that they understand how the sites they visited relate to the topic under study in class.

When an actual field trip is not possible, students can still learn from historic places right in the classroom if purposeful activities are employed in the modes previously described. Simply correlate reading photos with other activities, like document interpretation or role-playing. Imagine the enrichment of learning visual literacy, for example, by studying the Pillsbury "A" flour mill and the change it sustained as a way to understand how Minneapolis became the foremost national flour producer. Students can relate the flour revolution to national industrialization and transportation development in the late nineteenth century to illustrate the total interdependence of local, state, and national history.

In many ways, then, historic places are the ultimate teaching tool. Natural and human-made places—local, state, and national—can be studied like written documents for their lessons from the past. Use of activities involving historic places builds the cognitive skills of students through such practices as exploration and discovery, research, inventorying, analysis, and interpretation. Acquiring visual literacy will enable students to see cause-and-effect relationships, to test hypotheses, and to track chronologies. They will be able to learn how to move from specific to general historic moments and back again.

Seeing the present associated with the past can encourage students to transfer our multicultural heritage to future generations. Therein lies another teaching potential: the commitment to care for the built and the natural environment to benefit those beyond today. Every state has some historic site threatened by the inevitable wrecking ball or bulldozer—the old movie palace, the antique hotel, or the dilapidated railroad yard. Students can learn not only the significance of history but the importance of preserving its artifacts, buildings, and environment. They can learn to "recycle" old places for new uses. They might even want to put a hoe to weed, a brush to paint, a hammer to repair. Such involvement is invigorating and the spirit is contagious. Young people like to believe they can make a difference. Commitment means caring; caring means preserving. Communities need the caring commitment of service from our young people if our national heritage is to be preserved into the twenty-first century. Teaching with historic places has the potential to regenerate into an avalanche of involvement that will make lifelong historians of our young people.

The National Register Information System (NRIS), a database containing information on every property listed in the National Register, is a public reference maintained under the auspices of the National Park Service (NPS), a division of the Department of the Interior, in Washington, D.C.; information is kept on CD-ROM. Copies of nomination documentation can be obtained by contacting the National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service, PO Box 37127, Washington, DC 20013-7127. (202) 343-5726. Every listing contains a discussion of the historical significance and local, regional, and/or national context of a particular property. Each state historic preservation office, usually found in state capitals, maintains a copy of the nomination documentation for every property in its state. Full documentation includes text, photographs, and maps that can be copied upon request. If teachers do not have a specific place in mind, but simply want to find out what properties are local, the database can be searched by a number of data elements including location, historic function, and area of significance.

In the past three years, acting on recommendations of the National Park Education Task Force, Congress provided modest appropriations for an educational initiative entitled Parks as Classrooms. A portion of this funding has been used by National Park Service historians scattered throughout the nation to develop a Teaching With Historic Places program featuring lessons relevant to over fifty individual park properties. And in a joint venture between the NPS and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, additional National Register sites were used to create seven model lessons by Fay Metcalf, which appeared in the journal, Social Education, published during the academic year 1992–93. Those interested in teaching with historic places may also want to consult the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Building Watchers series.

—Rita G. Koman is a seventeen-year veteran precollegiate teacher of American history and government living in Manassas, Virginia. She created an educational kit about teaching with historic places on the theme, "American Work; American Workplaces" (National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1994).