By Kathleen Barker, Education Department
Earlier this spring my colleagues and I had the opportunity to spend two fabulous afternoons with a fifth-grade class in Minnesota. Thanks to the magic of Skype, we never had to leave the Society! Our online field trip was facilitated by Laura Tessmer, a teacher at the Clover Ridge Elementary School in Chaska, just outside of Minneapolis. We first met Laura three years ago when she participated in our NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture workshop, “At the Crossroads of Revolution.” Since that summer we have looked for ways to reconnect with Laura and her students, in spite of the 1,400 miles that separate our two institutions. Laura has been experimenting with other distance-learning technologies this year, and in April and May, she added the MHS to her list of virtual classroom visitors.
The Society’s wealth of online resources allowed Laura’s class to preview many documents and artifacts prior to our discussions. On 4 April, students came prepared to analyze items from our recent exhibition on the War of 1812. Questions and comments flowed nonstop as we discussed documents such as “Huzza for the American Navy!”, a political cartoon published in 1813. Students expertly dissected the saucy puns and plays on words intended to celebrate America’s early naval victories over the British, while commenting on visual details such as the patriotic wings of the wasp and the hornet. Throughout the discussion these young scholars demonstrated their great knowledge of the war, as well as their enthusiasm for the documents and artifacts they explored as part of our visit.
We met with Laura’s class again on 29 May, this time to review events related to the Civil War. We began by discussing the recruitment of soldiers during the first year of the war, and students quickly identified all of the clever tactics used by military propagandists in broadsides such as “Major Gen. Banks’s Grand Expedition!: 2d Mass. Cavalry!” from 1862. We pondered the military pay scale, and discussed the importance of musicians, who often played a vital role in preserving troop morale during and between battles (in spite of their lower pay). Class members also discussed several manuscript documents, including the illustrated diary of Sarah Gooll Putnam. On 3 February 1864, Putnam visited the military camp at Readville (in Boston) where she saw General Burnside on parade with Massachusetts troops. Once again, this great group of budding historians impressed us with their knowledge of the Civil War, making connections between MHS documents and the wartime experiences of men and women from Minnesota.
Since our first experiments with Skype programs were both entertaining and enlightening, we hope to expand our virtual offerings to additional teachers and students in the next school year. The flexibility of this online format allows us to expand our outreach efforts in multiple ways. We are always looking for new opportunities to meet local teachers who might not have the time or the budget to bring students to our headquarters on Boylston Street. Of course, we also enjoy meeting and working with teachers from across the United States through our onsite programs, and virtual field trips will allow us to maintain our many connections in all corner of the nation. If you are a teacher who would like to sample an education program at the Society—either in person or through the web – please contact the education department. Meanwhile, many thanks to Laura Tessmer and our new friends in Minnesota for making our virtual visits such a success!