One of the really great aspects of my job is working in the Education Department of the National Archives at Philadelphia. For several months, I quietly worked in the background helping out with all things education from public programming workshops to NHD Philly. Andrea Reidell, the Education Specialist, is the front woman of this operation. I’m happy to help wherever I can and in any capacity, big or small.
All of that changed a couple of weeks ago with my latest project. Reidell worked out a partnership with Esperanza Academy Charter High School, a Philadelphia-based school located in North Philadelphia. According to the school’s website, it has a 100% minority student body that consists of 95% Hispanics and 5% African American. For 19% of its student body, English is a second language.
This partnership entailed NARA supporting student research as the 9th grade class embarked on a family history project. After conducting their own family history research, the students would produce a mobile that represents their family history/tree. The finished product is set to be displayed in our exhibit space here at NARA.
This project reflects what I most enjoy about being an archivist & historian. It promotes archives and archival institutions in a different, interesting way. It gets members of the public, in this case the school, its students, and their families, engaged with archival documents and history. And, it makes history personal. For these students, history won’t be a dry subject anymore.
To my surprise, as the resident archives technician in the Education department, I would have to create a presentation geared toward these high school students. I also had to develop a hands on primary source activity to promote critical thinking and analysis. On the one hand, I was excited by the challenge of developing a workshop and the possibility of expanding my skill sets. On the other hand, I was terrified.
Ultimately, I decided to use the U.S. Census in particular the 1930 and 1940 census. As a federal government record, I went this route because its a frequently used resource for genealogists from beginners to experts. And, the Census could be used two ways: to track a family through time and to learn about changes in neighborhoods. To give this exercise some added weight and a personal touch, I looked for streets near the school. I settled on the 4200 block of North Fairhill Street, only a few blocks from the school.
In the exercise, students would be looking at changes in the Damm family who lived in the 4200 block of N. Fairhill Street and the overall neighborhood composition between 1930 and 1940. I would use the changes in the Damm family from 5 children in 1930 to 4 children in 1940 to have a larger discussion about changes in families and how records document these changes. In regards to the neighborhood, I wanted to get the students thinking about how their neighborhood has changed within the last 70-80 years.
Creating the exercise and accompanying handout was the easy part. Figuring out what I would actually say was another story. At this point in my life, it had been over a year since I had given a presentation of any kind. This instantly recalled to mind all my nervous quirks. The dry mouth. The heart pounding. The shaky leg (which I affectionately call my “Thumper Syndrome”). All of it. I never really liked giving presentations because the physical symptoms tend to be exhausting. Over time, the way I compensated for these effects would be to always have a bottle of water handy when presenting and to move…a lot. I’m very expressive with my hands when I talk partly so you can’t see my shaking hands. I use this “need to move” technique so my Thumper Syndrome isn’t as noticeable too.
When I arrived at Esperanza Academy on April 30th, I had my flash drive (with my presentation) and copies of the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Census and the accompanying worksheet. With eyes wide open, I dived right in to my first workshop as an official representative of the National Archives.
Well, first off, I survived but that’s pretty obvious. Unless I’m writing this post beyond the grave as a warning to all…. (sorry! couldn’t resist)
With any presentation, there were several fits and starts. Every presenter knows and dreads that awkward silence that occasionally pops up during a presentation. You look out at the sea of faces and they’re blankly staring back. Yeah…had quite a few of those. The first presentation, I felt, was a little slow in taking off, granted it was the morning and it was my first of seven presentations. Yes, you read that right. Over the course of 5 1/2 hours, I gave the same presentation 7 times. And in that time, I talked to over 150 9th graders.
After the first two presentations, the students became more engaged and I hit my stride. I was able to joke with them. Maybe even get a laugh out of them. That’s a feat in and of itself because these are teenagers. They’re too cool to laugh. (read: sarcasm)
Maybe its a combination of getting older or having done so many presentations in my life, but the nerves weren’t bad. At most, I experienced the dry mouth but that had to do more with talking a lot vs. nerves. In fact, one of the biggest compliments I got was from one of the teachers. According to her, I looked relaxed and comfortable talking to the kids.
The biggest highlight of my day came at 7th period. In my last and final presentation, as I’m handing out the handouts, one of the students exclaimed in surprise. He revealed to the class that the address for the Damm family in the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Census was his home. The classroom came alive with conversation. As I continued to pass out the copies of the Census, I told the class with a smile, “Let’s find out who lived in his house 80 years ago.”
That class was engaged, focused, and interested. For a brief time, at Esperanza Academy, history was alive, relevant, and deeply personal.