Scattered Because of Covid-19, Students Find History in Their Backyards

When the novel coronavirus outbreak scattered his students around the country and the world, social studies teacher Mike Reynolds mourned the loss of the rich discussions that took place around his classroom Harkness table. But with most students at home, Reynolds seized an opportunity for a project that would introduce them to new technology and also make history more personal. Within a few weeks, students were recording online presentations about their grandmother’s collection of a century-old youth newspaper, Civil War-era bullets found in the backyard, and a family shotgun’s ties to World War I.

Reynolds’s inspiration for the project was a series of videos organized by Princeton historian Rhae Lynn Barnes and featuring scholars discussing a primary source that they found compelling. Titled “The Show Must Go On,” the series is designed to help high school teachers during distance learning. 

With those videos as a model, Reynolds asked his students to identify and analyze a historical primary source — a skill tested in the AP history exam — then use the Loom video system to record a presentation for the class. Thanks to a Lee Sanford Ainslie, Jr. ’56 Fellows Mastership a few years ago that helped him study how to apply digital technologies to the study of history, Reynolds could point his students to libraries, museums, and other institutions with internet historical resources related to their interests. 

Ruby Gregg ’21 studied Library of Congress newspaper accounts of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, while Arianna Otoo ’21 surveyed letters from African Americans to President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Leo Kong ’21 studied automobile registration records from the turn of the century through the 1920s to document the growth of the car industry and automobiles as a way of life.

Reynolds also suggested that students look for primary sources in their homes and their family histories. The idea caught fire with a number of them. “I was just fielding tons of emails and talking to kids who were excited about having these conversations with their family members and digging into their family’s history,” he says.

Britney Parkinson ’21 focused her research on the Youth’s Companion, a Boston-based weekly newspaper published from 1827-1929. Her grandmother had saved dozens of issues from 1908 to 1914 and passed them down. Analyzing the paper’s reporting on suffragettes, Britney found that the movement had far more limited ambition than today’s campaigns for women’s rights, if only because women in the Progessive era were starting from such a disadvantage legally and culturally. 

“Women were fighting for their basic rights,” she told the class. “They weren’t necessarily trying to redefine gender equality.” 

Sides Bell ’21 — whose family is temporarily living in her next-door neighbor’s guesthouse in Vernonburg, Ga., outside Savannah — discovered that a Civil War-era resident of the house, Josephine Clay Habersham, had written a diary later published as a book, “Ebb Tide.” Habersham wrote of the war’s effect on Sides’s neighborhood and spoke of her three sons who fought for the South. Sides also discovered that Habersham’s daughter, Anna Wylly, had written a journal of the time that mentioned encountering Union soldiers in the neighborhood well before Sherman’s march through Georgia came to Savannah. Just recently, Sides's family had discovered the button of a Union coat as well as bullets in their backyard. 

The neighbor told Sides the story of the Habersham family in the Civil War, even taking down photos from her walls. “It was very cool to hear a story that’s someone’s own history,” Sides says.

For Thomas Gibert ’21, a family heirloom shotgun led to his study of trench warfare in World War I. The serial number and patent numbers on the gun — a Winchester Model 12 that had belonged to his grandfather — revealed that it had been made in 1929. But Thomas discovered that the model had been carried into battle by American fighting in World War I. It was extremely effective in close-quarters combat in the trenches; indeed, Thomas found that the Germans had protested its use as a violation of the rules of war. 

Though Thomas and his family have newer models of shotguns, he has used it while hunting.  “It kicks like a mule,” he says. “But it’s pretty special to have an old artifact that still works.”