When students study history, the story of what happened can seem predictable or even pre-destined. (Of course, George Washington was the first president; the North prevailed in the Civil War; etc.) But when historians are first presented with documents and other sources, they often do not know what the story will be. It is their job to carefully sift evidence, weigh bias, interpret facts, and come up with the storyline that makes the past relevant for the future. Having students “think like historians” can build their skills in research, critical thinking, and communication.
And that’s what a public history project in the classroom is about – just ask the students of Michael Karpyn’s social studies classes at the Marple Newtown High School in Pennsylvania. Two years ago, as the school neared its 100th anniversary, Karpyn had his students take on researching and writing the story of the school district. They were faced with mountains of documents – from photographs to yearbooks to sports memorabilia – and bemoaned at first that “there is no story.” As Karpyn guided them in the ways of the historian, a chronological story of how a school district is born and changes through time evolved.
Eventually a timeline exhibit was built in the front hallway of the school. Money was raised by community groups and individuals adopting each decade, and a graphic designer was hired. Other school personnel chipped in to build frames and help host an opening on the actual 100th anniversary.
The impetus to do public history in the classroom remains. During the project so much material was unearthed within the school and by the community that now Karpyn is creating an online archive. Working with other faculty and students, he is making use of a free scanner from the Pennsylvania Library System.
And if there is any question about the learning that took place, this year some of the students were asked to share the timeline with school visitors. One student exclaimed later that he was amazed at how much he remembered when he had trouble remembering his textbook for the next class. Being a historian - creating the story – made history relevant to him.