Jumping Into the Fray with Teaching with Historic Places
By James A. Percoco, History Teacher West Springfield High School, Springfield, Virginia
“A teacher,” wrote historian and journalist Henry Adams, “can affect eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” How was I to know years ago, as I was pondering my future as a high school history teacher, that Adams, his quote, and the subsequent enigmatic sculpture that adorns his and his wife’s grave in Washington, D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery would somehow coalesce to help make me the teacher I have become? Those who sink their hearts and souls into teaching young people about our collective past no doubt will encounter similar epiphanies along the way. In doing so, they will affect the lives of the students that sit before them. It is, I believe, a great part of the process; it’s that great mysterious DNA that committed teachers understand in relationship with their students.
To be candid, had I not become a history teacher, I most likely would have found myself among the ranks of the many National Park Service rangers I have had the pleasure to work with during the last three decades. If you will permit me to wear my want-to-be ranger hat for a moment, I’d like to share with you how I have discovered that teachers of American history can cross over into the world of the cultural and historic resources of the National Park Service while still remaining enclosed by the cinderblock walls of their school. If you—like many in these fiscally tight times—can’t take your students to visit historic sites, you have at your fingertips on the computer keyboard the ability to bring sites to your students right there in your classroom.
For more than twenty years the National Park Service has, through its Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program provided for virtual field trips through the more than 135 lesson plans it has published. Written by teachers, National Park Service education specialists, and others, these lesson plans cover a wide range of themes that comprise the American narrative. The lessons meet national standards that are requisite for good history education, civic education, and service learning. They are pedagogically sound, reflecting best practices.
Let’s return to Henry Adams. I mentioned an enigmatic sculpture that sits over his grave. That memorial, best known as the Adams Memorial, is one of the handiworks and masterpieces of America’s greatest sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens’ home is a jewel unit of the National Park Service: Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire. In Cornish you can visit the sculptor’s home and workshop, where you can see duplicate casts of a number of Saint-Gaudens’ works, including the Adams Memorial.
If you are a teacher in Kansas and you want to introduce your students to the relationship between art and history, then you can go to the TwHP lesson plan, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site: Home of a Gilded Age Icon. Here you will find an image of the Adams Memorial and an excerpt from Henry Adams, which he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, about his first encounter with the memorial after it was installed. The lesson plan provides teachers with sufficient historical background material to place the information in its proper context. The lesson submerges students in the story of Adams and his wife, Marian—nicknamed “Clover” and who committed suicide in 1885—and in the work of Saint-Gaudens that came to reflect Adams struggle with his wife’s sudden death. Students then wrestle with a series of critical thinking questions that link the physical sculpture to what Adams wrote in his autobiography. At the same time students consider the work of art as art and make essential judgments about Saint-Gaudens’ interpretation.
For many people the Adams Memorial has become the personification of Grief. The fact that “Grief” became the name often attributed to the shrouded bronze figure rankled Adams, which he makes abundantly clear in the excerpts students read. Because of my proximity to Washington, D.C., I am able to dispatch my students to see “the real McCoy.” I ask my 11th and 12th grade students, as they visit the memorial with the background knowledge they have gained from the lesson plan, to consider their lives, and more specifically their futures, when they confront the work of Saint-Gaudens. You can do the same with your students by using the image of the Adams Memorial provided in the lesson.
Relating the Past to the Present
One of the tricks in my teacher tool bag is to always get my students to consider the relationship between the past and the present. One effective way I’ve found to help students understand that the American narrative is ever ongoing and will never be complete is to have them look at similar stories from our past that are separated by time and space but connected by raw emotion and the “stuff” of history.
A TwHP lesson that does this well is “From Canterbury to Little Rock.” In this lesson students examine two school-related racial stories and compare 1830s events in Canterbury, Connecticut, with 1957 events in Little Rock, Arkansas. Students are forced to consider attitudes about race in both the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as encounter an American myth that racism is a purely southern phenomenon. Both stories are laced with race hatred, ways in which race relations have shaped American history, and how often that particular battleground has materialized in school settings.
As in the case of the Saint-Gaudens lesson plan, this TwHP lesson provides the necessary background and historical context to understand the dynamics that were at work in both episodes of race and education. This lesson challenges students to wrestle with their own attitudes about race as well and poses the question: how much work do we have left to do to insure equality in the United States? Many other lessons in the TwHP repertoire prompt the same type of questions and concerns by exploring the problems and promise of living in a diverse society.
“You can do anything you please,” Augustus Saint-Gaudens often told his studio assistants and students. “It is the way a thing is done that makes a difference,” he concluded. So it is true for making the teaching and learning of history. Don’t be afraid to jump into the fray.
Read Case Study #1: Reeling Students into History: Using Films Creatively
Read Case Study #2: Applied History: Placing Students in the Past
Last updated: December 5, 2015