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Jen Hoyer
June 19, 2018

Jen Hoyer and Julia Pelaez were thrilled to represent Brooklyn Connections at the 2018 American Library Association Annual Conference. They presented a session on fostering student engagement through local history research, which included a discussion about how local history research can spark civic engagement in students, and what tools we should equip students with so that they can succeed with their research. 

The goals of this workshop were to understand how local history is a unique and relevant entry point for guiding inquiry-based learning and civic engagement; to identify, locate and utilize historical resources from local communities in order to adapt research skill lessons for meeting their classroom needs; and to propel students towards their own local history inquiry. We also emphasized how the skills we teach for local history research will equip students with interdisciplinary skills that can be transferred to any class and will help students navigate an often-difficult educational environment. 

Starting off: a look at Primary Sources

We started off with a conversation about what primary sources are. Readers of the Brooklynology blog will already be experts on this, from our blog post, "What's a Primary Source?". We talked about how today's classroom curriculum places a lot of emphasis on using informational texts, and how we see all different types of primary sources -- maps, books, photographs, ephemera, newspapers, and more -- as informational texts that can be used in meeting learning standards.

Here at the Brooklyn Collection, we have a terrific collection of primary sources to work with when we teach students. At the American Library Association Annual Conference, our session included attendees from all over the country -- and beyond! Their local context will be different than ours, and so we shared a tip sheet for finding local digitized primary sources that they could incorporate into classroom activities. You can find this tip sheet in the resource set that we've linked at the end of this blog post.

Why should we study local history?

After looking at how we can find local primary sources, we took a step back to discuss why we think it's valuable to study local history. We suggested a few reasons that we think are important: 

  • It fosters community pride and an understanding of students' role in creating history in their environment.
  • Local history makes United States history more relatable by drawing on student knowledge and experience.
  • Local history research levels the playing field for newcomers (ELL, ESOL).
  • Talking about local history changes classroom dynamics by giving students a platform to talk about their own experiences.

Julia shared one of her favorite examples of a school partnership that focused on local history. Over the 2017-2018 school year, East New York Family Academy decided that they wanted their students to learn about their local neighborhood's history because they wanted students to see a positive representation of East New York that is not being portrayed accurately by the media. Students from the sixth grade class, most of whom live in East New York, went on a walking tour of their neighborhood to gather information and pictures about East New York, highlighting places like the historic New Lots Reformed Church established in 1824. They were tasked with creating a book about the history of East New York; their teachers wanted students to create a tangible project that they could all have their own copy of, so that each student could bring it home for their family members to look at and learn about the positive attributes of their neighborhood throughout history.  

How do we get our students there?

Talking about this mini case-study of local history research led us to the big question: how can we support our students in doing this kind of research? We discussed two of the skills we rely on most: making observations and inferences, which provides a framework for analyzing historic material that is easy to scaffold for different learning levels, and taking notes with note cards, which teaches students the skills of historic thinking as they learn to identify noteworthy details.

We had a chance to try these activities out with some sample worksheets that you'll find in the resource set linked below. We also discussed the struggles that we have seen some students face while learning these skills and how we can scaffold activities to support everyone's learning, as well as the difficulties that various age groups tend to display in response to the lesson prompts we provided and how Educators can navigate those.

This historic image of East New York in 1857 provides a great starting point for making observations and inferences about what the neighborhood used to look like. 


Wrapping up

Our group discussion at the end of the session included a number of great questions that we had time to talk about. One attendee asked about how we help students focus in on a research topic to the point that they can ask a good research question; this provided an opportunity to share information about the primary source packets that Brooklyn Connections creates to give students a solid foundation in their topic of study. An international librarian asked about partnering with other cultural institutions for local history research, and we discussed how Brooklyn Connections works with other local experts and institutions to connect our partner schools with the best available resources and knowledge. Another attendee asked how we deal with difficult historic topics that are tricky to discuss with students. We emphasized that it is our responsibility to not avoid difficult conversations, but to engage students in discussion about words and issues we see in history that present troubling views of the past. The skills of historic thinking equip students to analyze these difficult issues as they come across them in their research, ultimately enabling them to identify perspectives and biases so that they can understand who writes history and what viewpoints they are seeing through the primary sources available to them.

The presentation for this session is available on Prezi; a full Resource Set from this session is available for download here.

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