Teacher Encourages Students to Listen to Voices of the Past – and to Each Other
December 24, 2020
Carol Bouffioux teaches social studies to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at St. Helen Catholic School in Dayton, Ohio. This small school that once served an urban parish now invites students of all faiths from throughout the city. Here, teachers earn less than those in public schools, “but we’re on a mission,” says Bouffioux, “so it’s fine.” The families who send children to St. Helen trust it to provide a solid education in a setting where religious values bolster moral responsibility toward others.
Bouffioux’s commitment to her school motivates her to continually deepen her own education. Two years ago she discovered Ashbrook’s Rediscovering America initiative through its bi-monthly “Moments of Crisis” webinar series featuring two scholars discussing key moments of decision or controversy. “I so enjoy listening to these from home. Ashbrook professors know what they’re talking about,” Bouffioux says. Later she began driving the two and a half hours to Ashland for monthly Saturday seminars. At these, teachers discuss a packet of primary sources on a period or theme in American history. Bouffioux finds these first-hand accounts of the past “extremely interesting.”
She brings portions of some documents back for her students to read and discuss. “Textbooks stay on the surface, an inch deep and a mile wide. Firsthand accounts give them a deeper look at history.” When a document seems too challenging for eighth-grade readers, Bouffioux pulls a quotation from it and summarizes the historical person’s point of view. She tells students about the Ashbrook seminar where she and other teachers discussed the documents. “Students smile and chuckle, but it’s good for them to see me as a student, just as they are. I tell them I try to learn something new every day – sometimes I learn it from them!” (She asks them to explain the continually evolving pop culture terms they use).
In June, Bouffioux drove four hours from Dayton to Kentucky for a one-day Ashbrook seminar on America’s westward expansion. She spent Sunday night in a motel so that the next morning she could begin the seminar fresh and rested. The time and expense were “well worth it. We discussed documents on the Lewis and Clark expedition” – which Bouffioux finds fascinating, both for the explorers’ courage and for the foresight of the President who sent them into an unknown wilderness. Jefferson wanted information to help American citizens settle the West; and he hoped Lewis and Clark would discover a water route from the Mississippi to the Pacific coast, allowing transcontinental trade. But he also wanted the scientific observations of flora, fauna, and terrain that Meriwether Lewis would bring him. “He was a president who wanted to learn more about the world,” Bouffioux said.
A mix of motives similar to Jefferson’s drew American settlers into the west, where they hoped to find a more interesting and prosperous life. But like Lewis and Clark, the settlers would need strength and determination. Teaching this history, Bouffioux tries to cover all perspectives. “I do teach how the natives were driven off the land. I also teach the courage of the settlers – the women who had to manage the household and till the soil while the husband traveled to town to trade for provisions. You can’t write those people out of the story,” Bouffioux says.
She explains that some of her own students have made similar journeys. Each year’s class brings several immigrant students. Recently she’s taught refugees from civil strife in Rwanda; years ago, she taught a child from Vietnam who wrote of leaving behind his most precious possessions – his books – when he and his mother came here to find opportunities foreclosed to them in their communist-ruled home country. Bouffioux tells students about her own family. Her father left Peru to complete his medical education in the US; her mother arrived here as a teenager. Bouffioux’s grandfather, a German POW held in New Jersey during World War II, had been befriended by a guard from Ohio who offered to sponsor his family if they immigrated. “My students are intrigued by immigration stories, and I want to hear theirs,” says Bouffioux, who encourages students to query grandparents about their family origins.
Bouffioux shows students photos of immigrants arriving in their native dress at Ellis Island around 1906, taken by an official who used his own camera to record the fascinating parade of nationalities and personalities he was seeing. She asks students to guess the nationality of the person featured in each photo, their socio-economic situation, and their feelings at this moment of entry to a new land. (You can view the photos here).
Photographs are another type of primary document from the past. Like diary entries and letters, they help students empathize with and respect “the perspectives and experiences of others,” Bouffioux says. She believes our democracy depends on this mutual respect. That’s why she appreciates Ashbrook seminars; in them, teachers engage in respectful conversation about primary documents. They listen to the voices of the past while also listening to each other’s observations. Talking together, they reach a deeper understanding of history than they would if they studied alone.
Seminars of this kind model the interactive process of representative government. Good legislation should be the culmination of a long conversation in which the people’s representatives listen to constituents’ views and then deliberate together. Bouffioux tells students about her own yearly visits to Washington, where she works with a national group seeking legislation to fight pancreatic cancer. (Bouffioux’s 28-year-old son died of the disease in 2014.)
She describes for her students the carefully coordinated advocacy process: “On the first day, we meet in a large conference for coaching on how to approach our representatives, how to tell our stories, and what the big ‘ask’ is this year—it generally involves money for research. The next day we make our visits to our Congressmen and Senators and then write thank you notes to those we saw. Then we go home and in two weeks send follow-up emails to remind them of the bills we’d like them to support. Because of our work, there have been increases in budgeting for cancer research, and the ‘Recalcitrant Cancer Act’ was passed.”
Self-government in the large, political sense requires that we first govern ourselves as individuals, speaking and listening with courtesy; remembering to express gratitude. “We often hear criticism of people going into their own camps and engaging in identity politics. If we remember our shared ideals of freedom and equality, we can listen to each other and approach problems not as if dividing up a finite pie, but confident that we all can have more” of the good life America offers, Bouffioux says. “Everyone wants the same opportunities. We need to give everyone access to them.”