Teaching history at a historic moment

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“Is it a directory? The student shouted, pulling out the large booklet that lay casually over the collection of embossed, leather-bound books dating back to the early 1900s.

Inside the East High School Museum, my students walked through one of the school’s glass display cases and tried to uncover subtle details about the lives of students who had walked the same halls before them.

“It is held in place with string!” The student exclaimed.

Advising him to check the year, I smiled and explained to him that there was probably a good reason why this one was different. On the side of a hand-drawn P51 Mustang fighter plane was the year: 1943.

Matthew Fulford

As she leafed through, she thought the short collection was more like an album than a yearbook. Yet this historic collection of pen drawings and black-and-white photographs contains more than the limited pages suggest.

Together, we guessed that the directory team probably didn’t have an actual budget that year, or that the idea of ​​spending money on souvenirs might seem crass in the midst of the effort of war.

Perhaps the short form of the yearbook also shows that many of the typical student events did not take place that year. “Did they still have the ball during the war?” Asked the students. I confessed that I had no idea.

As I enter the most unusual semester of my career, I remember that very normal moment of just over a year ago. As a historian, my students also remind me of the importance of understanding the context and making sense of what happened.

Our deductions from the 1943 yearbook have now developed a meaning that did not exist at the time. The context has changed. While my students are fortunate enough not to expect graduation followed by active military service like many young men did in 1943, they experience their own moment of hiatus – similarly defined by directory pages that were not.

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As we begin the school year remotely in the midst of a pandemic, my students predict to miss several rites of passage and the social world they depend on. Many of the connections they need with their teachers are also missing.

Teachers are currently mourning this absence. By distracting ourselves with hours of professional learning, we show genuine enthusiasm for new online tools that allow us to mimic some level of connection with students.

There is a Google Chrome extension that actually allows us to create chat groups in Google Meet! Do you need attendance too? Costs! In my case, the enthusiasm is real when it eases the discomfort I feel about not being able to truly build strong relationships with new students.

When I show them the PDF I hastily made of the 1943 yearbook, will I still hear a sense of excitement in a student’s voice as he realizes its meaning? Teachers tend to categorize these brief but electrifying moments into a “why am I doing this” collection in our brains. I just hope I can continue to complete this file while I video chat with my students.

Yet, as with the 1943 yearbook, the absence, as well as the presence, should be noted. Historians discuss “voices” and “silences” in historical sources, and I am constantly intrigued by the silences.

“What does this tell us that this is the only yearbook we’ve seen without a single page describing a school dance?” I asked the students, not knowing their own prom was weeks away from being canceled. While many of us view 2020 as a year defined by omission, these silences will tell their own story to future generations.

Demanding social justice and hungry for social connection, our students recently contributed to Eastern history by coming together six feet apart amid the pandemic to protest the murder of George Floyd by the police.

They painted the words “Black Lives Matter” on a wall facing the 17e Avenue, and came back to redo the work after vandals repainted it. In the 2020 yearbook, sad photographs of empty sports fields fill the pages initially reserved for spring sports.

Our new yearbook team will also be wondering how to portray a fall semester devoid of its typical concerts, plays, speech and debate tournaments or gatherings.

As they continue to miss so much, photographs of masked students rallying for the cause of racial justice might find their place in the school’s museum, ready to resonate with future students curious about the meaning of the masks, the signs, the space between students, the lack of prom photos.


Matthew Fulford is a professor of social studies at Denver East High School. He has been teaching in Denver Public Schools since 2010. @Matthew_Fulford


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