Students as Historians: Look Locally for Inspiration

According to the authors of In Search of Deeper Learning, one of the best ways to educate students is to have your students actually do the work of people in a particular field. In science, kids can create a hypothesis and test it via experiment. In math, kids can devise their own way of solving real-life problems. And in social studies, students can become historians, developing a story based on documents, images, and stories told around the kitchen tables of your town.  

When looking for fun, creative social studies projects for kids, consider your local community. What is the history of your area? What issues is your community grappling with? What can your students do to create positive change in their neighborhoods?

Some of the best projects Jason Kathman and Jeff Kresge have done as middle school social studies teachers in Jamestown, NY were sprung from ideas hatched by looking at the local community.  

In an effort to convey the reform efforts of the early 20th century muckrakers such as Lewis Hine, Jason and Jeff hatched a plan to have the students break up into groups and canvas the city, taking pictures of anything the kids felt needed to be improved. These images were then uploaded to a blog with brief descriptions of the concerns noted by the students and shared on social media. The student-activists quickly drew the eye of the community and ended up being asked to present their findings to the mayor and city council. The students’ work can be viewed here. If you are interested in running your own Lewis Hine project, take a look at our Apple book, “Becoming Lewis Hine.” In it, we take you through all of the steps of our student muckraking project.

Another such project started by inquiring about a photograph taken in Jamestown’s not-so-recent past. Students examined an image and postulated that the image was taken of a construction project. Again, the students published their hypothesis, only to discover they were wrong. However, by making their work public, the students took feedback from the community. Our local residents began to flood the school with photographs, oral histories, and family trees surrounding a misguided urban renewal project in the late 60s and early 70s. Each day brought new and exciting materials for the students to analyze. Through their Lost Neighborhood Project, students learned of an entire community of Italian immigrants being displaced in an effort to create a commercial space in the center of town that never came to fruition. Students interviewed the then-mayor and many residents affected by the move to understand multiple perspectives. Ultimately, the students' deep dive into their local history led to them being recognized by the New York State Archives - all because of a few guesses made about a single image.

There are many stories in your local community just waiting to be discovered. Who settled there and why? How has your town changed over time? What was the most important event in your city’s history? What makes your neighborhood unique and special? The great part of integrating local history is that you have experts all around your building eager and excited to jump in if you make your research project public. You’ll be sent stories, grainy home videos, documents, and family photographs for the students to wade through. The kids will get to be the historians - determining for themselves what stories need to be told based on documents and artifacts. As U.S. Representative John Lewis often said, “Let the spirit of history be your guide.” By looking locally, our students can make history come alive by doing just that.

2 replies

September 13, 2022

Such a wonderful story about student learning, discovery and creativity. I also appreciate the questions you suggested for other teachers who might want to jump in, and the link to your book!

Agree, community history is so important because students begin to understand how history can be relevant to them. In addition, they are practicing the skills of historians while learning about impactful people such as Lewis Hines.

Thanks so much for taking the time to post this here in the Social Studies section!

September 19, 2022

I just read a blog post from the Library of Congress that might be an interesting learning twist on a local project.

Exploring Disability Concepts through Primary Sources on the Built Environment

If students have access to historic photos of their town or city (perhaps through a historical society or library) they might embark on a compare and contrast of the built environment. What improvements can they identify in their city that help with accessibility and/or what changes might increase accessibility? Photos and interviews would be a wonderful add along with showcasing their findings publicly.

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