Teaching History in a Post-Industrial Age

Article excerpt

The first time I fell in love with history was on a fifth grade field trip. Our teacher had taken us to a historic house. The stoop of the house had a handprint image, and the curator explained to my class that this print was made by the builder's daughter way back in the 1800s. I put my hand inside that handprint made so long ago and felt a connection; I had one of those mystical moments when I felt time stand still; I felt connected to those who came before. I suddenly "got" history as something that could belong to me, as something that was about true stories of people just like me.

Now, as a social studies teacher, I emphasize the story of history (sticking to the facts as much as they are known) and the human qualities of the players. Middle school kids are in the throes of exploring self-identity and attempting to define their worlds. They love drama, and history provides plenty of it. I find that teaching history as dramatic stories of human weaknesses, strengths, failures, and triumphs inspires them.

In historical events, students have a chance to explore how those in the past constructed their worlds and self-identity; they get to see how people fit in and what that might mean for them. It's so beautiful to me to hear kids' exclamations about historical figures like Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Dona Marina, Thomas Jefferson, etc. When they say, "Snap, he was whacked," or, "She was cool, I like her," I am able to see past the slang to understand what they mean: Here's a historical figure that I'm beginning to understand. I am curious about this person. I want to learn more.

Our Town

Paterson is located in a corner of northeast New Jersey, nestling at the bottom of the Watchung Mountains and hugging the Passaic River. We are within view of the New York City skyline. Paterson was founded in 1791 by Alexander Hamilton and his "Society for Useful Manufactures" or SUM. Our city is home to the third largest waterfall on the east coast of North America. The Great Falls inspired Hamilton to create an industrial city, with the rushing water providing power for turbine engines. He arranged for Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the nation's capital city, to design a system of waterways and other constructions, including a dam across the Passaic River, in Paterson.

The city flourished during the Industrial Revolution, becoming the capital of silk manufacturing in America, and earning the nickname Silk City. Paterson has played a vital role in American and labor history. It was here that the first steam locomotive, submarine, and Colt revolver were built. Industries grew and with them the stories of immigrants and laborers one usually associates with Chicago and New York City. Factories and beautiful architecture shared the landscape with towering spires, smoke stacks, and an elegant yet sturdy bridge over the falls. The falls themselves still provide more than 90 percent of the electricity for the city of Paterson, and they are still gorgeous.

But it is sad to see what has happened to Paterson over the last two decades. Gradually factories closed and jobs became scarce, leading to widespread poverty. The factory buildings are abandoned and much of the city is in disrepair. A few years ago it was ranked the second poorest city in the state. The city government has been rocked with corruption. My students are so used to hearing Paterson talked about in negative terms on the news, they are shocked when I tell them the importance this city had in earlier times. One student said, "If Paterson is so great, why do people hate us so much?"

I love this city and hope to see it revitalized one day. The beautiful buildings and falls are still here. The people are resilient and full of energy. Paterson has the potential to be a leading museum area for labor history (as Williamsburg is for colonial history) but it would take a lot of money that just isn't here.

About Our School

Many poor districts in New Jersey are called Abbot districts, after a late 1980s court case. …