Engaging High School Students in Primary Research

An Interview with a History Teacher


High School teacher Nancy Lewis and her students.

Claremont, New Hampshire is one of those red brick towns often found in the post-industrial New England landscape. Characterized by large, often abandoned 19th century buildings that once housed busy mills and factories, they exude an aura of bygone prosperity. Stevens High School history teacher Nancy Lewis felt that Claremont suffered from a negative self image that her students reflected and internalized. Nancy hoped to change their perspective by “looking back” through a hands-on exploration of local history. Serendipitously, the history department at her high school was looking for more electives to offer. Having just completed her own research project on the Industrial Revolution — after attending the Flow of History Summer Institute — Nancy volunteered. Based on her research, she developed a course that worked with primary documents related to industrial history.

“It fit it in with my own interests and dovetailed with the school’s interest. The Flow of History Summer Institute provided the initial spark for my work, but the drive to teach it was my own curiosity about Claremont.

“I had a nine-week quarter of 85 minutes a day to teach this unit as an elective,” Nancy explained. “Eleven students chose to take the course — some because they were interested in history, others because they wanted to study with me. They were a mostly motivated group — and the less motivated ones quickly rose to the challenge. So much of what we did was hands-on.”

“I brought in a funky box of rusty parts I found in a friend’s old barn and asked the kids to identify them. There were old tractor parts, springs, parts of the barn door rollers, and a few fake artifacts. Their assignment was to tell what the part did, what materials it was made of, what was movable, what it fit into, and where would it have been found in 1860? They weren’t allowed not to answer; it was preferable to make something up — in other words, guess — rather than say nothing at all.

“This was the hook. There was no textbook.” Nancy borrowed teaching materials from a variety of sources, including the Internet, textbooks, documents, and search sites (such as the U.S. Patent Office). She started the course by talking about life before the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the beginnings of capitalism and mercantilism. They spent a week on the English Industrial Revolution, then shifted to America, talking about who lived here, what resources were here, how educated the population was, and the population explosion. “We looked at the big name inventors such as Sam Slater and Eli Whitney. I took them to Lowell on a field trip, where we went on boat ride up the canal.”

“…how much was Eli a great inventor and how

much was he just a great self-promoter?”

“Within three weeks we narrowed the focus to New England. We started with the idea of interchangeable parts by reading what Ed Battison (Founder of the American Precision Museum) had written about the myth that Eli Whitney had invented the first interchangeable gun parts. I posed a series of questions via a worksheet to determine the different perspectives that the history books may give you. We all like heroes, but how much was Eli a great inventor and how much was he just a great self-promoter? Eli Whitney came to life this way and kids responded. ‘The hero becomes human’ — my kids loved this.

“We talked about what had happened in Windsor and the whole idea of interchangeability and precision machining. I brought them to the American Precision Museum with a treasure hunt I designed. It worked well because I had them not only focus on the machinery, but also look at how beautiful these huge machines were, how much care was put into their making.” Nancy asked her students to sketch anything they saw in the museum. “They could choose a part of a machine, a whole machine, the building itself — whatever they wanted. They went for the machinery.”

Finally, Nancy brought the focus down to Claremont itself. “Our final project was a Walking Tour of Claremont.” She explained to her kids that what they did would be a foundation or building block for the future, realizing that they wouldn’t be able to complete and publish an entire walking tour in the time they had available. She explained to them that whatever they did would be produced electronically so that it could be tweaked. All photos were scanned in.

“A ‘side trip’ on their walking tour was the postcard project. I wanted them to do photo analyses of change over time, exploring questions about how technology changes the landscape, and then project what they learned into the future. I supplied photos.”

Nancy found a great source searching online one night. “I typed in ‘Claremont New Hampshire photographs’ and found a lot of postcards for sale through EBay. I copied and pasted the images.” She also visited Colin Sanborn, the town historian, and scanned in his collection of postcards. She purposely found photos of the same places that had changed over time. Postcards were some of her most useful primary documents. The students filled out “Photograph Comparison Logs” into which they pasted copies of the photographs they were comparing. They had to identify the photo’s source; note any inscriptions; identify the date and location and what factors they used to determine these; and describe the technology in evidence (“What tools, modes of transportation, communication or power are visible?”).

Nancy then had students use GPS equipment and a digital camera to try to replicate the scene from the post card. “They loved this. The school is in the middle of town, which helped.” Their final task for the comparison work was to fill out a “Photo Analysis” form in which they identified differences in the landscape over time and tried to imagine and describe “the sights, sounds, and smells the first photographer might have experienced that would not be present when the shutter clicked on the later image.” The analysis also posed questions about the permanence of the changes they identified, the site’s significance, and their wonderings about the photographs.

“This project got them ready for their own primary source research. It got them looking at their own town in a different way. Colin Sanborn gave them a walking tour of the Industrial part of town. We also took a field trip to Fiske Library, where Colin showed students how to use microfiche to find all the birth and death records, census reports, and most importantly, newspapers from 1810 to about 1890.

“Colin has a large collection of articles written about Claremont, as well as the ‘official town history.’ The students learned how to use directories that were used by the Post Office. These, it turned out, provided lots of interesting data. They were a great resource.

“With Colin’s permission, we also went to the historical society. There they did primary source documentation and analysis. We used a modified version of the National Archives ‘Analyzing Documents’ sheet. This is where students found a deep interest in the lives of people long gone, reading their own words in their spidery handwriting, wondering about who made these documents and why.”

“It’s the search itself that makes the learning

so rich, and that’s what I saw in my kids.”

Filled with questions and curiosity, the students returned to the classroom and went online to ancestry.com. “We did data mining, producing graphs of immigration to Claremont, finding out who came here when and why. As a class they decided on which information they found might be relevant to a walking tour product. They were eager to share what they had learned with the public.”

What Nancy took away from her experience teaching this course — more than just how to access documents — was “how vital learning history is when you don’t open the text to page 310; instead, you say ‘Where can I get this information?’ It’s the search itself that makes the learning so rich, and that’s what I saw in my kids. The room would get totally silent and they’re looking at old documents and the documents smell like dust, and they stay focused.”

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