|Guided tour at Lowell National Park. |
Photo courtesy of www.nps.gov/lowe
If the experiences of my kids are at all representative, the glum accounts you’ve heard or read about elementary and secondary education in the U.S. have some basis in fact. Public school students move in virtual lock-step with their classmates, get a meager fifteen minutes for recess, and take tests with unsettling regularity. Meanwhile, their hardworking teachers and principals must manage both rigid curriculum standards and large classes.
In light of these oft-repeated concerns, my perspective brightened last week while chaperoning my son’s fourth-grade class trip to the Lowell National Park, the splendid and well-preserved site of the famous textile mills where America’s industrial revolution took off in the 1830s and 1840s. I didn’t come away feeling like a Finnish parent probably feels after accompanying his or her child on a field trip. Still, the experience left me much more optimistic about the trajectory of early history education: the kids arrived well-prepared and the museum’s activities were engaging, hands-on, well-paced, and occasionally revelatory.
After a brief introduction to the tour’s theme—“Yankees and Immigrants”—the fourth-graders had to locate cultural objects, e.g. ethnic musical instruments, notices for historical leisure time activities etc. (I was of little use as “chaperone” here, partly because I came across Jack Kerouac’s typewriter and backpack.)
Then it was on to the recreated boardinghouse where these little historians got an up-close view of the cramped quarters—four young women to a room, and two to a double-sized bed—that female mill workers occupied at Lowell during the 1830s, the busy kitchen where their meals were cooked, and the elegantly simple dining room tables on which they would have taken them.
|Boot Mill Weave Room. Photo courtesy of www.nps.gov/lowe|
From there, our elementary battalion marched across the canal to the brick building where young mill girls toiled the better part of each day. My son and I agreed that this was the coolest part of the trip. Inside we discovered the clamorous concourse of eighty-eight power looms that hummed, clunked, and churned below a forest of shafts and belts. Unfortunately we didn’t get much time here. The museum features other tours dedicated to the work and the machinery, but this one tied into the fourth grade curricular standards.
At our next stop, a comfortable terraced theater, the students put on period garb, read lines from index cards, and participated in a mock town hall debate on funding a public school for Irish children. The remarkably brief and unnervingly civil town hall meeting concluded with an affirmative vote on behalf of the poor Irish kids. Emerging unscathed from this lackluster enactment of local democracy, we proceeded to a thirty-minute lunch that was fifteen minutes longer than either teachers and students typically received.
After a morning spent as New England mill girls, parish priests, and local businessmen, our intrepid band spent the early afternoon as immigrants who were interrogated and processed, before seeking the company of their fellow countrymen and women. Formed into ethnic neighborhoods, these newly minted immigrants then rummaged through their bags and trunks for the kinds of personal possessions that would have made the journey from Ireland, Greece, Cambodia or Columbia, located their place of origin on a world map, and succinctly described the artifacts they’d encountered. It was a well-conceived historical exercise.
In short, my day including some promising signs for the state of elementary history education: the kids aren’t just memorizing abstract facts, their learning is active, their activities generally engaging, and museums and schools have developed fruitful partnerships that actually deepen the students’ understanding of the past. From what I could gather, these fourth graders had read and talked a good deal about textile manufacturing and the life of the young women and immigrants who worked in Lowell’s mills, while their indefatigable teacher had already given them a hands-on introduction to the beguiling mechanisms of the power loom. I’m talking about a Massachusetts public school here and the trip was booked and co-chaperoned by two smart and able suburban moms who help organize enrichment activities for the kids. So my experience could hardly be considered universal. But I suspect that it’s more common than not.