Making History Personal

I knew that a junior high school in my hometown was named after the painter, George Inness, but never heard a word about him in the years I was in school. In a college art history class, I come across his name linked to the Hudson River and Barbizon Schools. And later, I learned that he lived for a time at the Raritan Bay Union and was a Swedenborgian, a spiritual belief system that influenced his last paintings.

Over the years, I’ve been surprised to discover other historical associations with my hometown. Why didn’t I learn about them in school? Was that the day I was sick?

I’m guessing here, but I bet most towns and counties have historical societies that can provide information about famous residents or not so famous residents who took part in important events. For example, I learned that two young men with family names I recognized from the small Ohio town in which I taught rode with Custer at the Little Big Horn, one died, one lived.

History, for some students, is just another subject. As one young man explained to me, history is something history teachers are paid to teach me.

But history is story. Homer told stories. The griots of West Africa tell stories. Some families have members who tell stories. Studs Terkel collected oral histories of common Americans. His book The Good War is a history of World War II on the human scale.

Doing history will help make it become more than just a subject. A good place to start would be a local historical society, if you have one nearby. If not, try finding the closest with the United States Historical Societies Directory – Society Hill. Searching the Internet is an obvious possibility, but having something specific first to search for makes web searching more efficient.

With that in mind, student’s should remember human resources: family, neighbors, longtime residents. Personal anecdotes can lead to larger subjects.

Local and Family History at The Library of Congress website has a long list of resources. The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide is designed to help students make use of family and community as key sources of history, culture, and tradition. Curating the City is an educational program specific to Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, but it can serve as a model framework for developing a similar project for your town or city.

Historical research is a cross-disciplinary endeavor. It offers opportunities for using math, science, language arts, art, and even drama. Students can work individually and in small groups. Discovering how the local fits into the big picture can make history more than just something history teachers are paid to teach.

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