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Coney Island: America’s Playground

By Education Department

Posted on September 1, 2017

Brooklyn Historical Society has partnered with over a dozen Brooklyn schools in the past decade to implement Cultural Afterschool Adventures (CASA) programs in partnership with NYC Council Members. In the Young Scholars program, our educators meet with a group of upper elementary school students over the course of the spring semester, culminating in the creation of a book on a pre-selected theme. These books are then distributed to students, their families, and their schools. A copy of the student work is added to the Othmer Library & Archives, memorializing the student work for generations to come. If you’re interested in viewing the book discussed below, you can visit the Othmer Library during its public hours.

Here, Program Educator Janise Mitchell reflects on the process:

312 photo 1
312 photo 1The PS 312 Young Scholars.

What happens when you have a group of fifteen 5th-graders who are simply passionate about history? What happens when your students have nicknames such as “Mr. History,” “Best Interpreter of Primary Sources,” or “Ms. Sassy”?  You get the privilege of being an educator for the Young Scholars program led by Brooklyn Historical Society.

As an educator at Brooklyn Historical Society, I had the privilege of working with an amazing group of students. As a former Social Studies teacher, I was delighted to be the lead educator at PS 312, located in the Bergen Beach neighborhood. I thought this would be a natural bridge to help share my passion for history with students.

I was fortunate that this would be my second year working with the students of PS 312. During my first year, the students’ level of historical sophistication left me in awe. They were very comfortable with using primary sources and doing historical research. So I knew that this year, I definitely needed to bring my “A-game!”

312 photo 2
312 photo 2At work on history.

For the initial sessions, I wanted my students to understand how historians think. We worked on developing historical thinking skills such as sourcing, corroboration, contextualization, and close reading of primary sources. The level of commitment was wonderful. Each week we poured over documents from the archives of Brooklyn Historical Society, as well as the Brooklyn and New York Public Libraries.

The PS 312 Young Scholars focused on the development of Coney Island. For such a broad topic, the challenge was to narrow down the focus. We started our research by viewing the Ken Burns documentary “Coney Island.”  We examined Coney Island’s history from its development to its decline and later resurgence. We did comparisons of leisure-time activities from the past and today. Finally, we focused on how we look at Coney Island through the lens of social change.

As we began our investigation, students were fascinated by how entrepreneurs developed Coney Island into the most famous amusement park in twentieth century America. Students were divided into groups and studied the development of the three major amusement parks: Luna Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland. Students asked, “What made each park unique?”“What led to their decline?” and “What is Coney Island like today?”

312 photo 3
312 photo 3PS 312 Young Scholars work during an afternoon session in Spring 2017.

Students discovered that, although each park differed in its target audience, Coney Island was much more than amazing rides. Each park was universal in its ability to bring masses of diverse groups together. Students were especially captivated by the dance craze of the day: the cakewalk or cake dance. We decided to view footage of dancers performing the cake walk at Coney Island. After further research, students discovered that the origins of the dance was created by enslaved people on Southern plantations. The results were illuminating; students developed a thesis that dances formerly performed by enslaved people eventually became part of popular culture.

For our final session, we were thrilled to take a guided walking tour of Coney Island. On our walk, we gained deeper insights that research done in the classroom couldn’t do. One student, while facing the Atlantic Ocean, commented, “Imagine immigrants seeing the lights of Coney Island for the first time.” Connections were made. Students were intrigued by the transition of the side-show acts from dehumanizing people with disabilities to performers today who control the rights of displaying their bodies.

312 cover
312 cover“Coney Island: America’s Playground” can be viewed by visiting the Othmer Library during public hours.

It was rewarding to watch students constantly question and develop theories about the past. For these young scholars, they learned more than just the “how” of doing historical research. They learned life skills, decision-making, prioritizing, and collaboration.  For myself, I always ended each session with this question, “Are you having fun?”  The resounding chorus of “Yes!” provided validity of student engagement.

Janise Mitchell

Brooklyn Historical Society

PS 312 Young Scholars Program Educator

If you’d like to bring the Young Scholars program to your school in Brooklyn, e-mail us at [email protected] with “Young Scholars” in the subject line.

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