The grand narrative of history taught in Lincoln Public Schools classrooms — the one marked by famous letters and iconic speeches, by influential figures and pivotal events — will need to make room for a new kind of history lesson this fall.
In a few classrooms and libraries, the well-documented moments of the past will be complemented by the artifacts and stories tucked away in Lincoln’s neighborhoods, in its attics and trunks and boxes and the minds of those who live here.
Students will be doing the sleuthing — with the help of LPS teachers and librarians who spent a portion of their summer figuring out how to take a college course called History Harvest and make it work in their classrooms.
History Harvest began in 2010, the brainchild of University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Will Thomas and associate professor of history and ethnic studies Patrick Jones.
The two were looking for an innovative way to teach introductory history courses: something community-centered, a way to make students active participants and bring history alive for them.
“History Harvest was born out of those discussions,” Jones said. “And also the realization that most of the historical artifacts that are out there in the world are not in an archive or a library or a museum but in the possession of everyday people. The things they hold on to and keep and ascribe meaning to, and the stories they have from their everyday life.”
Each class is organized around a different subject — a neighborhood or group, a geographic area — and students learn ways to reach out to communities whose histories they want to record. They learn to digitize and archive documents and artifacts, how to record oral histories and curate what they've collected.
The histories are stored on a History Harvest website that other students, teachers or community members can use. Because it's all digital, there are no issues with finding space to store the artifacts, which are photographed and returned to the owners.
“We’re acknowledging that the experience of everyday people is important and the things and stories they have to tell are worth capturing and sharing and maintaining,” Jones said.
UNL students have recorded the history of North Omaha, the refugee community in Lincoln, the musicians and music of the Zoo Bar, the Germans from Russia in the North Bottoms and Czech community in Wilber.
Universities and colleges around the country have used the class as a model for similar courses.
A three-year grant from the Humanities Without Walls Consortium will now allow Jones and Aaron Johnson, UNL assistant professor in teaching, learning and education, to adapt the concept for Lincoln Public Schools.
It's well-suited to younger students, who live in a dynamic, interactive world and who are used to using technology to share information, Jones said.
Johnson sees it as a paradigm shift in the way K-12 teachers think about history.
“The dominant way of teaching has historically been this grand narrative approach to learning about the past, which drowns out in many ways instrumental voices to understanding the past,” he said. “What the harvest does is provide space for kids to ... see themselves in history, that we all have a history.”
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History teachers in K-12 education often rely on primary documents in historical archives to help students research and understand history.
This project helps students realize primary documents can also be things found in their own communities and homes, Johnson said.
Jaci Kellison, the district's social studies curriculum specialist, said the project is a way to teach two of the most important objectives of social studies courses: teaching students to think like historians and to get involved in their communities.
"The kind of goosebumps moment for me ... was that students are part of creating a historical record," she said.
The Nebraska history taught in fourth grade fits perfectly with the History Harvest concept, said Stacy Haney, who teaches fourth graders at Humann Elementary and was one of four LPS teachers and three librarians who worked with Jones, Johnson and two graduate students last week.
She's thinking of expanding lessons on homesteaders to include history students can learn from their own families. She’d also like to dive deeper into the Orphan Train history, when orphans from the East Coast were placed with families in the Midwest.
Carol Mathias, who teaches at The Career Academy, is considering finding a way that students can capture the history of a local business, or maybe the businesses in a particular part of town.
Lux Middle School teacher Brad Irvine wants students to learn more about the veterans invited to the school each year in celebration of Veterans Day.
An important part of the class, Jones said, is involving the community.
“It’s a collaborative process so we really want communities to be connected and invested in what we’re doing,” he said. “We want to share the materials as broadly as possible and want them to be used.”
When students learn about their own history, or those of their communities, they connect their own stories to broader lessons in history, Jones said.
"Through our own experiences and through this community-based history we can understand larger themes and issues related to American history and global history ... students see themselves connected and rooted in a historical context.”
And it helps students understand their communities in a broader way, he said.
“It’s also an acknowledgement that Nebraska, particularly, has a really rich, and complicated and diverse history that is often not acknowledged,” Jones said. “This is a great project to bring forth historical artifacts and stories from the community that are sometimes overlooked or not fully fleshed out or have been marginalized.”
Johnson thinks it will help students from elementary school through high school understand that history isn’t something abstract and foreign but a part of them and their lives.
“It provides ways for students to understand their story matters,” he said.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSreist.