Oct 31 2006

Living History

Educators aren't just teaching history. With the help of technology, they're trying to preserve it. Those efforts range from teaching American Indian culture and language to hands-on historical preservation projects.

Wylie Wong

MOSES SPEAR CHIEF DEVOTES HIS LIFE TO KEEPING the Blackfeet language alive. The Blackfeet Nation encompasses four American Indian groups that stretch from Montana to Alberta, Canada. However, because of previous government and educational policies that nearly stripped the Blackfeet Nation of its land, culture and language, only a small percentage of its approximately 16,000 enrolled members are fluent in their native tongue.

Spear Chief is working to change that by teaching Blackfeet in the Browning Public Schools, where 98 percent of the approximately 2,000 students are of Blackfeet descent. Browning is a town on the 1.5 million acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. The town’s educators teach the language at all grade levels and incorporate Blackfeet culture—songs, dances, beading, and tribal history and government—into the core classes, such as reading, history, math and science.


“All the elders are slowly passing on, and once they’re gone, the language and the values will be gone,” says Spear Chief, the school district’s Blackfeet Native American Studies director. “The parents today don’t know the language, so we have to teach the language to the kids in order for it to survive.”


Going Beyond Textbooks

Educators are no longer just teaching history from textbooks. Some are trying to preserve it, whether that involves cultural or community history.

In the case of Browning, school officials are trying to save an entire culture and language from extinction. In other schools, teachers and students participate in history preservation projects, ranging from oral history to hands-on efforts to save a piece of community history.

In Wisconsin’s West Milwaukee Middle School, students lobbied the government to preserve historical Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) buildings from demolition, and they videotaped a documentary to build community support. At Gahanna Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio, students videotaped interviews with former graduates and spent five years collecting school memorabilia, creating a museum-like display of class pictures, school newspapers and letterman jackets from the early 1900s to the present.

Teachers say their efforts empower students to step back in time and into the lives of their ancestors or the community members who lived before them. In doing so, students learn to fully appreciate their roots and the struggles and triumphs of people from years past. Not only do students learn to treasure history, they’re actually working to save it.

“It teaches students that what they do makes a difference,” says Tom Gregory, public speaking and broadcasting teacher at Gahanna Lincoln High School. “The kids realize how they are connected to the past and how the past connects to where they are now and into the future. It helps them understand that history doesn’t have to be about famous people and what went on in the textbooks. We’re all part of history.”

Getting Started

To come up with a history preservation project, teachers must choose a topic they care about, then find a local angle so students can take part, says history and multimedia teacher Linda Wamboldt of the West Milwaukee Middle School. “Take a passion and expound on it,” she adds.

Wamboldt enjoys hands-on learning activities. During the last school year, she involved her students in a grassroots effort to save historical buildings owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In 1864, a group of Milwaukee women first established a Soldiers’ Home to take care of local soldiers who were sick or disabled after fighting in the Civil War. A few years later, the care facility moved to a larger location, which is now part of a 90-acre site called the National Soldiers Home Historic District, on the grounds of the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center.

In addition to the Soldiers’ Home, the district includes about two dozen other post-Civil War buildings. The VA Center has opened part of the land and some of the historic buildings to commercial development.

During the last school year, Wamboldt and her students joined community activists to save the historic buildings. They wrote letters to VA officials. She won a $4,700 grant from the National Education Association Foundation for the Improvement of Education to purchase a video camera, software and a computer, so that her students could videotape and edit a documentary on the historical significance of the National Soldiers Home Historic District.

Last year, when VA officials visited the community for a local hearing, the students attended the meeting and showed them the documentary, says Wamboldt. Students also designed and printed a coloring book that explains the history of the buildings to help raise funds for the Soldiers Home Foundation, a nonprofit organization that is working to preserve the buildings. Some students are even learning to become volunteer guides, so they can give tours of the buildings on weekends.

“There’s a lot of rich history across America, but many schools teach American history, not local history,” Wamboldt points out. “For kids at this age, it’s all about ‘me.’ So we need to teach what’s closest to them first. Start with where they live, and then expand.”

Saving a Culture

In Montana, the issue is definitely about “where the kids live.” It involves the daunting task of creating a curriculum that will teach American Indian students their language and culture. For example, students are taught that the Blackfeet were historically buffalo hunters and got their name because of the blackened moccasins they traditionally wore.

Spear Chief, who learned the Blackfeet language from his grandparents, has a staff of about eight people who teach in the program. He has developed lesson plans for each grade, incorporating culture and history throughout the curriculum. In science, they learn about the animals, plants and medicine important to the Blackfeet. In math, students calculate the circumference of teepees. In art classes, they examine the symbols and designs that are used to decorate teepees.

Technology also plays a role in the curriculum. Some Blackfeet teachers use SMART Board interactive whiteboards, which save everything they write on the board to a computer. Because teaching language is about repetition, teachers can bring up the stored information onto the SMART Board anytime they want to go over words in the Blackfeet language, according to Scott Molnar, Browning Public Schools’ director of technology. Spear Chief also develops lesson plans using Microsoft Office that he shares with his teachers via CD-ROM disks.

Seniors in the community are great resources to tap into for history projects and are often willing to volunteer their time to teach today’s youth, educators say. In Browning, Spear Chief invites Blackfeet elders—the leaders of the group—to give lectures during class field trips to American Indian historical sites.

Spear Chief also helps organize a retreat during which Blackfeet elders update the language. The group met during the fourth yearly retreat this summer to create words for technology, such as desktop and notebook computers, satellite dishes and microwave ovens. Each year, Spear Chief takes the newly developed words back to the school district to teach his students.

In the past, racism made it difficult, if not impossible, for the older generation to teach their children the Blackfeet language. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, for example, missionaries banned the Blackfeet language from schools.

The Blackfeet elders are now making up for lost time and are welcoming the opportunity to teach the language to the younger generation, says Blackfeet language teacher Stan Whiteman.

The Browning High School teacher says the language program is cultivating cultural pride among his students. “This was our first language and it was taken from us,” Whiteman says. “The students realize it’s something they should know and try to hold on to.”

Community Involvement

In Ohio, Gregory and his students at Gahanna Lincoln High School couldn’t have pursued their history project without the help and support of the community and school officials. About five years ago, he and his students realized that despite its rich history, the school did not have any memorabilia to show for it.

To remedy that, they decided to create a school archive. Their goal was to create a “Memory Lane” and fill the school’s hallways with memorabilia to commemorate Gahanna Lincoln’s history.

Their first project focused on the school’s class pictures dating back to 1914. Some 30 years ago, the school loaned the framed photos to the local historical society, which displayed the pictures in its museum. Gregory and his students thought it would be a great idea to get them back and hang them in the school. School administrators quickly negotiated with the historical society, which agreed to return the pictures, which now hang in the school’s hallways.

Over the years, with the help of the media publicizing the project, former students and staffers have donated old school newspapers, yearbooks, souvenir theater playbills from past student performances and other historical materials to Gregory and his students. School administrators purchased display cases, so the materials could be shown in the hallways. Gregory changes the displays regularly to keep them from becoming stagnant.

In addition, students developed a Web site that details the school’s history. And they videotaped interviews with former World War II veterans and also made documentaries on the school’s history.

During the past five years, the project has brought current and former students closer together, according to Gregory. “It’s been a positive way for our school to reach out to the community,” he points out.

Kids Taking Charge

Educators who have taught history preservation projects say they’ve been successful in motivating students. Students would rather work on a project using technology as a learning tool than sit in class and take notes, says West Milwaukee’s Wamboldt. “This gives them a sense of accomplishment,” she explains. “So often, schools make them read a book and do not allow them to spread their wings and see the creativity that they can come up with. They now get excited about ‘boring’ things like research and history.”

For a project to succeed, teachers can’t become “control freaks.” Let students make suggestions and allow them to run with their ideas, teachers advise.

In fact, in Ohio, a student came up with the school history project. The student was visiting the local historical society, saw the school’s old class pictures and asked Gregory why the photos weren’t at the school. The question prompted Gregory to research the topic and then pursue the school history project.

Jordan Pollard, who was a 14-year-old eighth-grader in Wamboldt’s U.S. history class during the last school year, enjoys the hands-on approach to learning. He and two classmates wrote a skit that teaches the history of the Soldiers’ Home.

“It’s really fun to be involved and keep history alive,” Pollard says.

Starting a Saving History Project

Five tips for making your project a success include:

1. Choose a topic you care about.

2. Involve the community. Work on the project with community members, organizations and businesses.

3. Get the support of school administrators. They can help fund your project or secure donations from local organizations and businesses.

4. Involve other teachers and their students. Other teachers can help you plan and implement projects. Tap into their expertise. If they teach multimedia, for example, they can help you build a Web site.

5. Foster students’ enthusiasm. Let them run with their own ideas. The project could develop a life of its own, resulting in accomplishments you didn’t even imagine.

Raising Money for History Projects

Not all history preservation projects cost money. If students volunteer their time for an existing community project, that won’t cost anything. But for ambitious projects to work, particularly those that require technology, teachers typically need to apply for grants or ask local businesses and civic organizations for donations, says teacher Linda Wamboldt of West Milwaukee Middle School in Wisconsin.

Last school year, Wamboldt launched two history projects and received funding for both. She got a $4,700 grant from the National Education Association Foundation for the Improvement of Education to pay for equipment so students could make a documentary on the National Soldiers Home Historic District. She also received about $1,500 from local organizations to build a Web site and create short videos aimed at teaching youth about important Milwaukee historical sites.

To obtain grants, Wamboldt advises teachers to do research online. The History Channel’s “Save Our History” program (www.saveourhistory.com), for example, awards grants to educators with innovative history preservation projects.

Networking with local businesses and civic organizations is also important. School officials can open doors, but teachers also need to call businesses and organizations to tell them about your projects and explain how they can help, Wamboldt adds.

Over the years, Wamboldt has received funding from the local Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club. “You have to explain how they can give back to the community by investing in you and your school,” she says.

If you have a history project that incorporates tech tools into the curriculum, contact Ed Tech for sponsorship at edtechmag@cdw.com.

Wylie Wong is a veteran technology reporter and co-author of Giants: Where Have You Gone? about San Francisco Giants players of the past.