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 Elena Ketelsen reflects on the process:
In exploring the history of Park Slope with the Young Scholars of PS 282, I wanted the research I conducted to be responsive to the students’ interests. My goals were to consider what the history of a neighborhood can teach us about our present and to ask critical questions about what we observed. As I began the program and met the students, I soon realized this extraordinary group was already invested in the program and that they were incredibly eager to focus their wonderings and dig into their neighborhood’s history. Almost immediately, we began the process of collecting questions, organizing our thoughts into themes, and having rich conversations about what we found and how it impacts us today. Aside from the academic piece of the program, we also developed a learning community in which the students cared for each other and collaborated in order to improve their work. By devoting time each session to sharing writing and hearing feedback, the students strengthened their writing and gained confidence in expressing their thoughts.
In considering the importance of history, Sydnie shared that, “History is studying different time periods to teach us about their impact on us.” Other students shared similar thoughts and expressed their interest in exploring the then and the now. We considered what important buildings were in the neighborhood and how their purpose may have changed as Park Slope grew. I went into Brooklyn Historical Society’s archives to find images of buildings such as the Ansonia Clock Factory, The Montauk Club, and the Charles Higgins Ink Factory. Alongside these images, I found a wide array of primary source documents, including letters, certificates, and photographs.
With each new source I dug up, we looked at the images together and the students came up with questions to guide their writing. When looking at pictures of Charles Higgins, the students recorded questions such as, “Was he kind to his workers?” “Did he have an American background?” “Was Charles Higgins related to royalty or did he work hard?” Students clearly wanted to know about the character of the people who shaped Park Slope, which made me work hard to find documents that spoke to these questions. In response to their questions, I would then dig deeper to find sources from which to deduce the answers to those questions. By finding a certificate of appreciation from Charles Higgins’ workers, students were able to conclude that he was in fact a kind factory owner, citing “all 49 workers had signed the document, so he must have been kind.” By engaging in this continuous process of using images to ask initial questions, then finding more images and readings to answer these questions, we were able to slowly piece together a history of these buildings and the characters that inhabited them.
Another important part of our exploration was simply taking in the sights of the neighborhood. We went on neighborhood walks to observe the architecture and to sketch the wonderful details of the buildings. This group was very artistic and interested in design, so we even did a little architectural history, learning terms such as “Neo-Grecian” and “Venetian Gothic.” As we walked through the neighborhood, students observed brownstones and debated the materials – was it terracotta, limestone, or a mixture? They asked, “What style is this church?” “What inspired the towers?” and we took time to sit and draw our observations. When visiting The Montauk Club, students took an interest in deciphering the friezes and debating the architectural style. After our walks, students reported they were newly interested in the architectural history of the neighborhood as well as stories of the people who once inhabited these buildings.
Throughout the project, I kept returning to the archives to find more information, until I finally had to force myself to stop. Their questions were never-ending and we found we had only begun to scrape the surface of the history of Park Slope. Upon completing the book, we did not feel we were finished with the history—we had only presented a small piece of the puzzle. I look forward to hearing more from the students as they continue in their own explorations of the neighborhood, as they continue to wonder about the then and the now.
Brooklyn Historical Society
PS 282 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.