Teacher Offers Students A Second Chance To Engage With History Through Primary Documents
December 24, 2020
Ashbrook Teacher seminars model the free and thoughtful discussion of primary documents. Creative teachers like Deb Wiley Horner take the documents and discussion back to the classroom, and watch their students begin to care about history.
Horner attends every Ashbrook Saturday seminar she can. The seminars are held on the Ashland University campus and she finds them rejuvenating after a week working with students many would find challenging to teach: residents at the Portage-Geauga County Juvenile Detention Center in Ravenna, Ohio.
Horner’s students range in age from 12 to 18. They arrive unpredictably and stay from a few weeks to three months. Most lack good parental role models for dealing with the conflicts of adolescence. They are suspicious of authority figures, having often gotten into trouble by acting out natural feelings of anger and resentment. They feel victim to the hidden agendas of the adults in their lives.
But primary documents give them access to the inside story of history. The letters and speeches of earlier Americans reveal what they actually thought and intended. Reading the documents, Horner’s students feel they are at last getting the straight story.
Some bright students also gain a new critical thinking tool. If asked to turn from a primary document to an historian’s summary, they ask, “Who wrote this? What was that person’s angle?”
As they become fascinated with history, Horner’s students develop academic discipline. One student, working on a computer in Horner’s room during a study period, watched her preparing to teach a class on the Declaration of Independence. The student then found the online document at Ashbrook’s Teaching American History website. After a while, Horner noticed he was writing down every word in the Declaration that he did not understand, then checking an online dictionary for the definitions. Horner used the student’s annotated vocabulary list the next day as she taught the document.
For a women’s history project, the same student asked Horner to help him find a collection of letters between John and Abigail Adams. He then incorporated selections from the letters in a powerpoint presentation on the second first lady. Horner is encouraging this student to finish high school and go to college.
Horner listens at Ashbrook seminars for the human dynamic in history that relates to her students’ lives. “I went to an Ashbrook program at the Heinz Center with Gordon Lloyd on ‘Fifty Ways to Love Your Founders.’ He spoke about how the Founders argued a lot. I love that I can tell my students, ‘They agreed on the principle of freedom, but they did not agree on everything.’” Horner helps students realize that you can have a serious disagreement with someone without throwing a punch.
You can even collaborate with an antagonist on projects of great consequence. When Horner’s students read the Declaration, she said, “we discussed how the document ends, with the signers saying, ‘We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.’ The signers were committing treason against Great Britain. I asked students to imagine what could have happened to them if the Revolution failed. Then I asked, ‘What does it mean to be willing to lay your life down for someone you’ve actually been arguing with?’’’
During her free periods, Horner’s students see her reading. “They see me pull a document from the stack on my desk and ask what’s in it. I say, ‘It’s for my weekend Ashbrook seminar.’ They ask, ‘Why do you keep going to these classes?’ and I answer, ‘So I can be a more informed teacher for you, and can bring you a different perspective than you’ve heard before.’ It’s inspirational for them. They think, ‘If my teacher is still learning, why can’t I?’”