Teaching With American History: The Five Senses

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the Teaching with American History Grant Directors Conference. It was a short 3 minute talk, a testimonial of sorts to the course that started me on my journey to being a historian. I was going to wait until the videos became available (filmed by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media), but decided to post the text of the talk now instead.

Essentially the main speaker was my high school history teacher, Jim Percoco who outlined the basic tenants of the class called Applied History. The first half of the year is spent going on field trips, looking at films and books and really making students into teenage historians. The second half of the year involved sending us out into the world to work at historic sites first hand. As a supplement to his talk, Jim asked me and one other student to provide information about how we were effected by Applied History.

Good Morning,

If I had to summarize my experiences in Applied History I would do so by thinking about our five senses

Sight: Applied History taught me how to see beyond the words in the textbook. To walk upon the battlefields and see the ridges, to trace the road that Paul Revere took on his flight before the opening shot of the Revolutionary War, to recognize that these things really happened, that the evidence is everywhere we look.

The class taught me to touch (of course with gloves on): As the second half of the year involved a semester long internship, I was able to gather first hand knowledge about material culture, and consequently understand the role a simple basket, painting, or shoe played in every day life of ordinary and extraordinary people.

Applied History taught me to hear, to listen: Every line in a history text book is really a summary of a thousand different stories. That the movies we watch, the objects we touch, the sites we see are all part of a grander narrative. That even listening to my parents tell their stories, informs who I am, and who we are.

Taste: After Jim’s class I ended up at the College of William Mary where I took a course on foodways. Without the foundation I got in high school, I don’t think I would ever have been able to see the part that food plays in our very identities and culture.

As for the sense of smell: how many of us have walked into an archive and taken a deep breath. Imagine being a 17 year old student walking in and realizing what these documents and objects could tell you about the past.

Perhaps I can go on to say that the course opened up a sixth sense, you know, the one that allows us to see dead people and make them live again. This is the sense that lets us see the past as something tangible and worthwhile, something with meaning, and worth saving. Something with relevance not only to pass a test or to have random facts in our heads, but really to understand why we live the way we live. That the past really defines our present.

Lastly, I do have to say that this course gave me a passion—one that is reflected not only in my Masters degree at American University in Public History, but also in the work I do at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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