It’s hard to come back after a long hiatus. February started busy and things just kept on getting busier, and here we are in the middle of March. Maybe I should have guessed that planning a wedding, revising a book, and teaching middle school all at the same time would be pretty hectic. (Thinking about it now…duh.) But now it’s spring break, and I’ve sent a major book revision to my critique group, so there’s nothing to do but catch up on all the activities I’ve let slide.
Back in February, my 7th graders completed a creative project I really wanted to tell you about. It capped off their study of westward expansion and sectionalism in the United States (so, pioneers and the Oregon trail and the Civil War). My mom, an experienced history teacher, gave me the idea, and it’s complicated but fun: divide each section (about 13 students) into three groups, and each group will create a “family” going west. Then each group member creates three documents and an artifact. Letters, diary entries, ledgers, keepsakes…anything the family might have valued and saved for future generations. The documents describe family members’ hopes and fears about going west, as well as their opinions on the growing sectional tension between North and South. By the end of the project, each group has a collection of materials that reflect their fictional family’s personal experiences and views on sectionalism.
Then, once each group has turned in their work, we pack up a trunk, as though these materials have been saved for generations and we’re just now discovering them. Section A packs up their materials for section B, and vice versa. When Section B opens the trunk, each group receives a collection from a family in section A. It’s up to them to sort through the letters and diary entries, rag dolls and lockets, to figure out what happened to the family. Where were they going? Why did they head west? Who survived the trip and who did not? Students end up acting like historians, sorting through “primary sources” to make conclusions about the past. Except the “sources” were created by their classmates.
The day we opened the trunk, I was full of nerves. How successful would this project actually be? Would the students buy into it, or would they think it was silly and not take it seriously? Yet once they were settled at their tables, each group with a collection of materials, they dove into the project. Some sorted documents by date, others by writer; some tried to recreate family trees based on the relationships mentioned in the documents. The classroom buzzed with discovery: “Guys, they’re Mormon and they’re going to Utah.” “Oh! There are three sisters, not two!” Sometimes it just got too frustrating–was there a Clara and a Clara Mae in the family, or just one Clara called by two different names? We spent a lot of time talking about things you know for certain and things that may remain a mystery.
In the end one girl summed it up the best: “Sometimes you feel really excited, because you just figured the whole thing out. And then you look at another document, and you get really sad because it changes the whole thing and you have to start over.”
That’s what I love about working with primary sources: it’s an emotional roller coaster. I felt that way while researching for my book and for history essays in college. In fact, it’s the gaps between knowledge, the mysteries, that sparked the idea for my current book. And getting to hear 7th graders come to that same realization gave me chills. After all, part of teaching is sharing your love of the discipline with your students.