Researching Our School's History

Article excerpt

At the beginning of the school year, I cast my best "hook" for grabbing my students' attention: I challenge my eighth graders to investigate a bit of history that they interact with every day--the history of their own school.


Our "school history" unit of study usually takes place over the course of seven to nine days. In addition to building enthusiasm for social studies, this unit achieves several academic objectives. I want my students

1. To learn how to investigate and analyze primary historical sources, 2. To learn about the school's history,

3. To begin to see how this local history fits with the recent history of our nation, and

4. To plan and write a quality paper of several parts.

There are also social skills that students learn or practice in this unit of study on school history:

1. How to cooperate with peers (while examining historical evidence),

2. How to work with an "archivist" (the teacher), and

3. How to handle valuable papers (a historical collection) with respect.

In the beginning, I did not sit down and write out a seven-day unit of study. The project developed gradually over several years through trial and error and personal research.

A Discovery

A few years ago, while doing research for a graduate class, I visited the main branch of the District of Columbia Public Library in Washington, D.C.--the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library-and was thrilled to find a whole room dedicated to local D.C. history called the Washingtoniana Room. I was so intrigued that I returned to investigate the history of the public school where I teach, Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C. The librarian brought out vertical files on the school and several boxes. I was dumbfounded. There was a 1924 obituary for Alexander Tait Stuart (whose last name appears in the name of our school). There were articles from the 1960s about a local civil rights activist named Julius Hobson (Aha! There was the second part of our school's name. See the biographies in SIDEBAR 1). There were articles about two separate schools, Stuart Junior High and Hobson Middle School, joining together to form the "Capitol Hill Cluster Schools." There was so much material--and I had only begun to look in these files filled with old newspaper clippings. I began thinking about how to introduce my students to this interesting collection.

An Early Attempt

Originally, I wanted my students to have the experience of going to a library and digging out historical sources as I had done. So I gave my students some basic questions and two weeks to go the library, examine the materials, and create a final, typed report. But my instructions were too ambiguous, and I sent students off without teaching them how to investigate primary sources or handle historical papers. They were frustrated, and their reports were filled with misinformation. To my horror, a librarian called me to say that some items from the vertical files were missing.

So I changed my approach the following year: I brought the materials into the classroom. I made photocopies of primary source materials and created seven sets of documents that students could examine in small groups, under the teacher's supervision, over several class periods.

I also brought the detailed work of research and writing into the classroom. I explained to students step-by-step how a researcher goes to work in a library or archive. I told students how archives work, how to take notes from evidence, and how to work with a librarian to preserve the collection. I created lists of questions to guide students in their research and subsequent writing.

Finally, I monitored students as they explored the collections of (copied) documents, discussed the evidence with their peers, took notes about the form and content of historical sources, and gradually constructed a report about what they had discovered. …