The Public Humanist

Voices from the Past

One rainy day this summer, I called a childhood friend to say, “Anne Frank would have been eighty years old today.” She burst into tears and we talked about our experience, now two decades ago, reading Anne’s diary in class. Since we have been intimate friends with Anne for years, we naturally address her by her first name; such is the power of primary source documents.

When museums and classrooms create spaces where learners can interact with the objects from a bygone era, a real energy is channeled into the learning process. We discover learners’ empathy for the Holocaust victims whose shoes are stacked to the ceiling, understanding of the hardships in the daily lives of women who worked spinning thread, and most easily accessible, the voices left by those who could record the most intimate details of their lives. These primary source documents are vital in establishing a deep connection between today’s learners and the experiences of personalities in the past.

As a beginning teacher I took my first summer course at Primary Source, in Watertown, MA. Like the Living and Breathing History workshop Kate Navarra Thibodeau just detailed, we were given documents and artifacts to evaluate, interact with, write about, and reflect upon with other educators. This sort of experience as a teacher is very powerful. Sadly, it is rare to have the time and space to collaborate with others who are crafting lessons and thinking deeply about how to help learners connect with cultures distant in time, space, or both.

That first summer I spent learning about China gave me the tools to not only pronounce unfamiliar names, but to help students feel the frustration of the Chinese with the British opium merchants, as seen in Lin Zexu’s plea to “King” Victoria, the visceral pain of a young woman with a tenuous grasp on familial wealth having her feet bound, and of course Mao’s gloriously simple propaganda posters. More recently I have been fortunate enough to travel to China with students so that they may experience first-hand the silently tightly packed classrooms, racks of bikes being replaced by cars, coal fire powered cities, and the magic of negotiating a bartered deal. But for those students who can not jump on a plane, the eternally fresh love poems of the Tang Dynasty, an impossibly delicate porcelain teacup, memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, a tiny wooden cricket cage, and yes, more Maoist propaganda posters can help to connect them emotionally and viscerally to a place that would otherwise be entirely foreign.

When museums, research centers, and other organizations reach out to teachers in order to help give us the tools to reach our students and help them connect to others, these institutions leave indelible marks on the future as well as preserving the past.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate