Along with Educator Emily Gallagher, BHS Educator Alex Tronolone is working closely with a team of “young curators” at P.S. 312 to uncover the history of their Bergen Beach neighborhood this spring. The work the students create will ultimately go into three professionally-designed museum panels to be displayed at the school. BHS’s after-school program “Young Curators” is made possible by a Cultural After-School Adventures (CASA) grant from City Council Member Lewis Fidler. I’m happy to introduce today’s guest blogger, Alex, and his insights on getting students engaged with history.
Since the beginning of January I’ve been working with 16 incredible fourth graders in Bergen Beach to study their neighborhood and school. When we began the project I don’t think the students were quite clear about what we would be doing. They knew there was something with history, and that it was a “special” after-school program, but they couldn’t picture the end result – a museum exhibit in our school? However, the students’ visit to Brooklyn Historical Society helped bring their project to life since they got to see the actual archival materials firsthand.
On our first class meeting following the trip, we gathered in a circle on their library’s carpet to discuss our findings. We then split into groups of researchers, writers, and artists to begin making progress on the production of our panels. Beginning with this class session, the students took complete ownership of both their roles and their collective project. For example, the researchers transcribed a 17th century bill of sale for the land around Bergen Beach! The researchers also highlighted important information in historic newspaper articles we had looked at as a class and sent them over to the writers to craft the text for our exhibit panels. The writers recorded facts and ideas they had learned about and noted questions where more research had to be done and sent them over to the researchers to find answers. The artists went through our historic photos of Bergen Beach and looked through our research for descriptions to help them imagine the past. They also came up with two art project proposals that they presented to the entire class to debate and vote on.
The class now has its own momentum that comes from the genuine enthusiasm these young curators have for this project. My students are so engaged they’ve been spending their lunch periods going to the library to do additional research for the project and every week some students ask to take home work to do.
As a former classroom teacher, I am especially enjoying working with public school students in this student-driven learning environment. When I taught special education in a NYC public middle school, my job as a teacher was really impacted by the external pressures of large class size and test prep. We spent entire months preparing for test after test, data notebooks, and, if you were really unlucky, a ‘quality review’. Invariably these tests consisted primarily of multiple choice questions – the lowest common denominator of knowledge and assessment. Needless to say, discipline had to be iron. My students would refer to themselves as numbers; corresponding to their state test scores. I dare you not to feel ill when you hear an eleven-year old with special education services describe their academic achievement as, “I’m a one”, or, “I’m a two.”
In contrast, my work with the young curators gets to be participatory, grounded in real historical research, and driven by the students themselves. It’s exciting to think that my CASA students are legitimately enthusiastic about our project. The skills they learn working collaboratively to produce their exhibit will be skills they can use for the rest of their lives. They’re learning to run their groups democratically (you should see them organize themselves!) and to make decisions about what work needs to be done and who will do it. They will have ownership over the knowledge they gain through historical research that can’t be replicated by studying a textbook or preparing for a test. The excitement about historical and archival research…well, maybe that will wane, but for now, their energy and passion has a momentum that makes it easy and a joy to teach.