What a difference Six Hours Made in My Life as a History Teacher!
Reflecting on more than five decades of teaching
During my first twelve years as a teacher in Queens, New York, I remember taking the subway to find information in the New York Public Library, museums, the Bobst Library at NYU, the Butler Library at Columbia, Queens Public Library, United Nations, and discussions with scholarly professors. My toolbox included filmstrips, textbooks, college notes, newspapers, and periodicals. During my next ten years as
a teacher at Ridgewood High School, I would drive to the Newark Law Library, Paterson Public Library, Firestone Library at Princeton, Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and walking to the Ridgewood Public Library to photocopy documents relating to the courses I was teaching.
Since 1995, I became more dependent on digital research and helped with digitizing manuscripts, identify maps and print resources, and introducing teachers and students to digital search tools. With the speed of the internet, research became efficient, accurate and productive. When my son and daughter worked on their college thesis papers, I would tell them of my experience with the hunt and
peck method of a typewriter, correcting tape, and that when I found a mistake or made a change, my entire paper had to be retyped from the beginning. In many ways, the digital revolution changed the
way we do research.
Six Hours on November 5 Changed the Way I Think about History
On Friday, November 5, 2021 I visited the Dey Mansion in Wayne with Jessica Bush and six educators from Passaic, Vineland, Parsippany-Troy Hills, Hillsborough, Immaculate Conception R.C. MS, Southern Regional, and Dr. Lucia McMahon from William Paterson University. This was the first time in a long time that I experienced going back in time to the 18th century. The experience was transformative as my
eyes visualized what my brain knew from reading very descriptive accounts by distinguished historians.
Dey Mansion is located on the Passaic County Golf Course making it easy to visualize 300 year old trees, winding roads, water from a stream, farm animals, crops, a visit from George Washington, the living quarters for enslaved persons, pillaging of farms by Hessian mercenaries, and people fearing for their lives. The transformational effect for me as an educator came with ducking my head under the beams, walking on the wide floor planks where George Washington and his advisors walked, thinking about 30 or more people staying at the Dey home in the presence of several young and active children, and what it was like to use the ‘outhouse’ in the middle of the night in January!
I started thinking about the different styles of candle holders, how long it took for a candle to burn out, the number of candles that had to be made or purchased, the darkness that appears by 5:00 p.m. in December, the smoke from the many fireplaces, washing laundry, getting dressed and undressed, visits with neighbors, the spread of disease in a home, having enough food supplies, worshiping in a church, several miles away.
It was difficult for me to remove the 21st century images of the Willowbrook Mall, warehouses, corporations, traffic lights, etc. from my brain. However, the detail of old maps, understanding that Passaic County was part of Bergen County at this time, visualizing that the Passaic River and its ‘little falls’ (Little Falls, NJ) was about one-half mile down the road, that from Route 3 and Route 46 I could see Hackensack and Manhattan, were all reminders to me about living in 1770.
360 Minutes on November 6 Changed the Way I Think about Teaching History
On Saturday, November 6, 2021, I met with my team of educators in Freehold researching the lives of ordinary people living in New Jersey during the time of the American Revolution. Their stories were waiting to be discovered and in some cases our eyes may have been the first to read some of the letters in the collections at the Monmouth County Historical Association.
With a warm welcome and friendly greeting by Dana Howell, we went back in time as the Monmouth County Historical Association home is across the street from one of the bloodiest and fiercest battles in the American Revolution. It is the stories of enslaved persons running away to freedom if they could escape to a British ship in the Atlantic at night, the emptiness that comes from a home pillaged or burned by Hessians, and the ever-present fear of skirmishes, the knock on the door by soldiers, and the imprisonment of a husband or son.
James and Steve on December 4 Changed What I Thought my Students Needed to Know
On Saturday, December 4, 2021, our team spent time with James Amenasor and Steve Tettamanti at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark. The collections of records, manuscripts, letters, diaries, and published books includes information in every county (and perhaps every community) in New Jersey. My observation of our team was how engaged they were in reading about the local experience of ordinary people. I was reminded that learning involves personal connections to experiences and that the experiences of people in the 1770s might be different from mine but also quite similar!
In my own research experience about the county jail in Hackensack, I was surprised to learn that the Puritan values were more extensive than Sunday blue laws and involved time in jail for playing games of chance and horse racing. The experience in areas near the Delaware River influenced by Quaker beliefs used fines to deter many crimes.
Although my students are engaged with determining the causes of the American Revolution, the turning points in the conflict, the heroic efforts of generals, the mistakes of others, the human cost of the conflict, they are missing the experience of ordinary local people who lived day-by-day in a state that was devastated by fighting, victimized by raids from the British base in New York, shot and killed in their homes, and making amazing sacrifices that contributed to our independence and personal liberty.
This is what I want my students to know in addition to the content of learning standards and textbooks. I am looking forward to sharing the amazing research for our team in March. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.