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Public History course puts theory into practice

May 12, 2014
By By Phoebe Sherman’14

This semester, the Beloit College history department offered a new course called Public History. Through field trips, guest speakers, individual research projects, and seminar-type discussion, 12 students met twice a week to learn about--and put into practice--public history. Public history takes many forms and varied perspectives, but the goal of the public historian always remains consistent: to broaden the public’s appreciation and understanding of the past while at the same time, acknowledging the public’s own place in history.

As one of their projects, Beloiters decided to tackle the issue of preservation and accessibility in archives, while combining it with developing educational programs for children. It was determined that the class would design and carry out fun, educational programs for children participating in the Help Yourself Program. The Help Yourself Program, specifically the Mezzo Academy branch, takes place at the college for children in grades six through eight who come from low-income and underrepresented groups in the Beloit area. One aspect of the program is to provide the children with excursions and experiences that they would not have on their own. There is where the idea for the educational archives programs came from.

Students in the public history class spent weeks creating lesson plans and thinking about ways they could turn a visit to the archives into an introductory, hands-on experience. They decided on setting up four stations using materials from the library and archives’ collections. There would be a microfilm station where students could search for their birthday in The Beloit Daily News 100 years before they were born, short “then and now” video clips of Beloit, a history game show activity, and a station where students could look at, touch, share, and talk about photographs, paper documents, and physical objects found in the archives.

These activities were ambitious. Letting loose a group of 30 sixth- through eighth-grade children in an archive would be many a person’s nightmare, but it’s the class’s opinion that it went incredibly well. Children were excited about the history they were learning. Never had they even thought history could be taught without reading from a textbook! Help Yourself students talked about how eager they were to share their favorite photograph, birthday headline, and more with their families. They wanted to know when they could come back.

Overall, the public history class’s archives activities were a huge success. Through thoughtful programming students were able to balance the preservation aspect of archives with outreach and educational programming. Along with that, Mezzo Academy students were introduced to aspects of history they hadn’t known about before. Students in the public history class hope that in the following years, more programs like these can be developed to keep introducing children to all parts of history—in an exciting and new way.

Public History course puts theory into practice