Developing a Local History Elective
Here’s how to find the resources to put together a course to teach middle and high school students about the history of where they live.
Schools aim to produce historically literate students with a keen awareness of the events that have impacted today’s world, including on a local level. Given our time constraints, however, teachers often must focus more on the big topics—wars, conflicts, economic developments, and the leaders who shaped the course of nations.
Local history frequently gets shortchanged.
With this in mind, we must ask ourselves: Are we falling short in educating our students about the history and culture of their own neighborhoods and communities?
In an attempt to diversify our electives, my administration asked the social studies department, of which I’m part, to create a new course. We settled on one that focuses on local history, and three of the five of us in the social studies department will be teaching it in the spring.
Here are the steps we’re taking to design our new local history elective, which we recommend for other educators.
Justifying the course
Before creating the course, ask yourself, “Why is this material important?”
The members of my department agreed that when students learn about the history of their own city, they have the knowledge of the people and events that influence their lives on a daily basis.
Local history also can help students appreciate their communities in new and dynamic ways. Young people are more likely to care about and give back to their hometown if they know something about it. On a lighter note, it’s fun to learn more about the names of people after whom buildings, streets, and parks are named.
The benefits of teaching local history are manifold, and devoting an entire course to such a curriculum allows teachers to explore the subject matter with rigor and depth.
Drawing on your and colleagues’ knowledge
Turn to your colleagues first. Think about what you and your department members already know. Work smarter, not harder, by harnessing everyone’s different capabilities. Our social studies teachers sat together one day and considered our different strengths and weaknesses in regard to content knowledge.
We identified one another’s own expertise (e.g., “I know a lot about the French and Indian War in our area”). Each member also shared where they felt weakest or most unprepared. Equipped with this information, we divided the work of curriculum building accordingly. Each of us agreed to work on topics about which we felt the most comfortable.
Reaching out to other schools
The idea behind the course, which we call Erie Experience, actually emerged from a class offered at a nearby school, which happens to be my alma mater. We borrowed the name and ideas from this class taught by my former teacher.
My department members and I knew that teachers at this school had a lot of information we could use, so a team member and I spoke with my former teacher, who provided us with support and information.
History centers and museums
We contacted our city’s history center; scheduled a time to meet with a volunteer, Mr. Jeff Sherry; and spent two professional days working with him. Mr. Sherry, who happened to be a former history teacher himself, provided us with many helpful resources, including relevant material and artifacts he was willing to share with our students.
Mr. Sherry offered to come to our class dressed in the clothing he wears during reenactments of different time periods. He also gave us contact information for experts in the area and other local research facilities that would be of help. We’ve since contacted these other specialists, including a group that runs a local history museum specializing in the French and Indian War and two documentarians at our PBS affiliate. We explored the history center’s collection and created a scavenger hunt that would get our kids moving and engaging with the center’s exhibits and artifacts. Perhaps most beneficially, the history center’s staff supplied us with a short book by a local historian, which will serve as our textbook.
Your community is probably filled with local historians who can be of tremendous help in planning this type of course.
The public library is a magnificent resource too. In the two afternoons allotted to us for curriculum development, our department went to our public library, where the librarians graciously reserved a space for us to work with the digital collections librarian, who explained resources that are digitized and accessible online. These included maps, legal documents, and old photographs, all of which would be illuminating primary sources for our students.
Another librarian gave us a tour of the heritage room that had antiquarian books and maps, as well as modern scholarship. Much of it will be beneficial to us.
Building the curriculum
Once you’ve taken the above steps, create a rough schedule and divide the task of curriculum building among yourselves. We settled upon eight units that covered topics such as geography, First Peoples, the Colonial period, the Great Depression, and the present.
Our department members decided what field trips would be the most worthwhile, since obviously we can’t spend every day out of the building. We also chose what experts and specialists we’d like to invite to the classroom to supplement certain lessons.
Local history is your history
Local history is important. It connects our students to their community’s past, and it helps them understand why their cities and neighborhoods look, feel, and behave the way they do.
More important, knowing about their hometown is a key step toward young people caring about hometown issues and trying to improve the places in which they live. Local-history education plants the seeds of community engagement.
Even if you can’t develop an entire course devoted to the subject, consider reaching out to people and places like those above to add local flair to your social studies class.