Adventures in American Studies

Today was one of those days that I live for as a teacher.  This year I am team teaching (with two colleagues) a course in American Studies that allows students to earn credit for both English and History during their junior year.  We have 38 students and the class meets four days a week for two periods each day.  Right now we are in the middle of a series of lectures that will give students a skeletal outline of American history, which will allow us to then focus in much more detail on different time periods and subject matter.  The outline should allow students to make connections with other time periods.  I’ve enjoyed the experience thus far and I am thoroughly enjoying our two new spaces, including a large lecture hall and a discussion room.

In addition to other assignments, each trimester students will be responsible for completing a major project.  For their first project students will work with a document from the University of Virginia’s Special Collections Department.  Today was their first trip to the archives.  For this first trip students were introduced to the assignment, the rules and regulations of the archives, and to cap it off the staff brought out a few of their gems.  Next week we return to give the class the opportunity to work a bit with their individual document.  While they are allowed to bring digital cameras with them the class is required to make one additional visit to Special Collections on their own time.

The overall goal of the project is to give students a chance to interpret an actual document on their own to see what they can make of it.  They will have a number of questions to answer, but they will have to think through the significance and meaning of their object.  They will present their findings on a website that they will create.  Most of the documents are broadsides, which are rich in detail and easy to connect to larger events and movements.  The folks at Special Collections were incredibly helpful and enthusiastic and I was especially pleased with the way our students handled themselves.  In fact, this is the first group of high school students ever to come through Special Collections for a class assignment.

The best part of the morning was the showcasing of a few of the archives’ high profile artifacts.  They included an original July 4, 1776 printing of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1820 letter in which he describes slavery as holding “the wolf by its ears”, the vote of Virginia’s Secession Convention, William Faulkner’s original manuscript of The Sound and the Fury, and three different editions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  By far the most interesting artifact was a salesman’s copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  These copies were bound, but did not include the entire book.  Instead, interested parties could get a sense of what the print looked like and could choose different kinds of binding.  The most interesting feature of this particular book, however, is that someone apparently tampered with one of the original plates.  The image can be seen above and I will leave it to you to figure out what is wrong.  Needless to say, the kids got a real kick out of it.

We want our students to see history as much more than something that is simply read in a book and regurgitated in different forms.  This assignment will give students a chance to exercise their imaginations and work toward their own interpretation of the past.  Today was a special day and one that reminds me of just how lucky I am to be a teacher.

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