Introduction: Why Local History
A fine historian and an inspiring teacher, speaking at a history educators' conference, made the embarrassing accusation that "most kids hate history." He supported his claim by explaining that the two key factors in the learning process are frequently missing from history and social studies instruction--DISCOVERY and INVOLVEMENT. Stated otherwise, the traditional teacher teaches and the student remains the passive occupant of the classroom.
This speaker blamed the teacher's unnecessary dependence on the history textbook for this pedagogical arrest. Because of publishing costs and consequent space limitations, the much maligned textbook contains only the briefest outline of history--key events in a state, national, or international experience. These high points of history can be described as mountain top events.
Within the context of this mountain top analogy, the student, their associates, and their community--their entire known world--are excluded from the usual secondary school history curriculum. History to the student, therefore, becomes a remote and unrelated subject focusing primarily on the deeds of political figures, heads of governments, and military leaders. Thus history--textbook history--evolves in the student's estimation as the record of "old folks and dead folks," people and events totally removed in time and space from the scope of the youth experience.
To further destroy interest in historical studies, some students find themselves in classrooms where the routine frequently becomes a dead-weight chore: the usual lecture, a daily reading assignment, and instructions to "answer the questions at the end of the chapter." Therefore, the well-meaning teacher, victimized by the time-honored pedagogical syndrome, eliminates the inherent drama and adventure in history by omitting the two key elements to good teaching: DISCOVERY and INVOLVEMENT--and thus kids hate history.
While the mountain top analogy emphasizes the student's physical and intellectual remoteness from textbook history, it also identifies those specific areas which hold the potential for better understanding. The deep valleys, both literally and philosophically, contain the people, places, and events omitted from the history textbook, which, significantly, are also the familiar habitats of our history students. By turning to the home community as a historical resource laboratory, the creative and imaginative history teacher DISCOVERS a new and frequently unexplored teaching potential, while the history student DISCOVERS a new type of history--a living history--where he lives and goes to school. He DISCOVERS tangible relationships with the recent past: familiar people, familiar places, and familiar events. He DISCOVERS he has a personal history that is part of a total experience, which incidentally, is recorded in the here-to-fore uninteresting textbook.
It was upon this premise--the teaching potential of local resources and the ability of young people to interpret them--that Walter Prescott Webb established the Junior Historian program, which also led to the subsequent organization of the Webb Historical Society at the college and university level. As members of these two organizations, thousands of young Texans have, through DISCOVERY, become INVOLVED in history. Through a wide variety of chapter activities, history emerges as a living experience. They DISCOVER a father who captured a bandit in a cave, a grandfather who trailed cattle to Colorado, a neighbor who "flew the air mail" before airlines carried passengers, and a great aunt who, as a justice of the peace, gave a community its only law and order. And in this process of DISCOVERY, the students achieve an appreciation for the adult members of society as their role in the community's history emerges.
Junior Historians can record their experiences in research papers for publication in the Texas Historian or in a variety of other formats that can be shared at the organization's Annual Meeting each spring. Some recent titles reflect the high adventure they experience in DISCOVERING LOCAL HISTORY: "Henry Ossian Flipper: America's First Black Officer," "Jay Gould's Curse on Jefferson: a Nineteenth Century Legend Disproved," and "T.V. Munson: The Texan Who Saved the Vineyards of France." When these local experiences are projected in a state and national context, the students see history--textbook history--as a totality, a vast framework of experiences made-up of all people of all colors, both rural and urban, that comprises something called the American Experience.
Recent educational research confirms the effectiveness of this strategy of engaging students in in-depth study on a topic in which they have some choice, then allowing them to express what they have learned through a variety of methods. The active nature of many of the suggested activities helps to create multiple connections between the content being learned and the experiences of the student, thus promoting long-term retention. The hands on activities suggested as part of the Junior Historian program appeal to a wide variety of students with a wide variety of skill levels because of the relevance that such activities have in their lives. This approach not only benefits a variety of students academically, it addresses the needs of the "whole child" by providing opportunities for those with increased interest in history, an avenue for closer school/community involvement and opportunities for service-related learning within the school or community. For more information about the curricular standards and initiatives applicable to the Junior Historian program see the Resource Section.
Emphasis on more rigorous academic standards in recent years and pressure applied to achieve high marks on assessment tests have created a situation in which teachers perceive the need to focus on delivery of tested content at the expense of activities that help build research and communication skills. The motivation behind this shift is simple: multiple choice formatted assessments by nature cannot test the communication and research skills mandated in the curriculum. This lack of mandated assessment is often turned into a shift of priorities for teachers and administrators, despite the fact that these skills are more important to the life-long success of the student. These conflicting priorities can co-exist. By applying local history examples and resources to state, national and international events, one can bring relevance to the content, while incorporating the skills that students need to succeed. Clifford L. Lord, author of Teaching History With Community Resources, noted the potential of the community teaching resource bonanza as follows: "Community resources put life into history. Localized history puts history into the life of the pupil. The materials are legion and of infinite variety; the possibilities are numberless; the horizons are unlimited. And so to work."