Historic places have powerful and provocative stories to tell. As witnesses to the past, they recall real events that shaped history and actual people who faced those situations and issues. Places make connections across time that give them a special ability to create an empathetic understanding of what happened and why. As historian David McCullough explains, experiencing places "helps in making contact with those who were there before in other days. It's a way to find them as fellow human beings, as necessary as the digging you do in libraries." (Brave Companions, New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1992, p. x.)
It is not necessary, though, to visit a place to feel its connections and to learn its history. Through a variety of materials and activities, the Teaching with Historic Places program (TwHP) enables teachers and students to learn from places without leaving the classroom. Students can develop their own interpretation of places by examining and questioning readings, documents, maps, photographs, and by engaging in activities that help them connect these locations to the broad themes of American history.
Whether visited in real life or on a "classroom field trip" provided by a lesson plan, places add substance to the themes and events covered in textbooks. Why did 18th century Spanish friars travel to, then live out their days, in isolated missions in the American Southwest? Why did children and world leaders alike flock to the doors of the modest cottage Eleanor Roosevelt chose to live in after her husband Franklin's death? TwHP lesson plans in this kit provide documents, questions, and activities that engage students in actively pursuing answers to questions like these.
Well-known places in United States history can help students connect national events and themes with the history all around them. In a lesson about the courthouse in St. Louis, reading about local debates over a railroad route that would have a national impact, and seeing that the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision started with a local case, will help students understand the important role their own local and state courthouses play. Real places in their own communities often make an even stronger connection for students than those more famous but farther away, often sparking students to learn more.
Places inspire investigations that enable students to develop a variety of basic and higher-order thinking skills. They learn to observe, gather facts, compare and contrast, synthesize and analyze, evaluate sources of evidence, develop and test hypotheses, and draw conclusions. Because places teach skills as well as content, they are well-suited to help teachers meet both state and national curriculum standards in social studies, history, geography, and other subjects. One of the ten themes in the Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, for example, is "People, Places, and Environments." The National Geography Standards use an understanding of the characteristics of and relationships among people, places, and environments as one of the marks of student achievement.
Ultimately, teaching with and about historic places benefits everyone. Educators have one more means with which to engage and excite students, students acquire knowledge from and an appreciation for cultural resources, and society gains a better-educated citizenry for tomorrow.