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Teaching the Hudson Valley: Using History to Teach the Future

Teaching the Hudson Valley (THV), began in 2003 with a mission to “help educators explore and share the region’s natural, historic, and cultural treasures with children and youth while fostering collaboration between schools and informal learning places.” As a first time attendee, I can confidently confirm that they are living up to their goal.

 

On the morning of July 25, a variety of educators and learners alike gathered in the Henry A. Wallace Visitor Center at the beautiful FDR Presidential Library and Museum. The theme of this year’s institute was “Building Community with Place-Based Learning.” Throughout the conference, I came to truly understand the definition of the term “place-based learning.” Some distinct characteristics of place-based learning are that it is grounded in the specific attributes of the area you are studying. In our case, it was the Hudson River Valley. It is very hands-on and is rooted in a drive to learn more about the region and it’s communities. Through place-based learning, students are able to see ways in which they can personally impact a place. These types of experiences are invaluable to students because as they grow to become adult members of their communities, they will truly understand how to best contribute to their region.

 

The conference started off with a keynote speaker (Gina Dellatte) after which participants divided into several different workshops. Topics discussed ranged from Eleanor Roosevelt to Historic Sites to Climate Change and everything in between. The vast list of workshops offered allowed educators to select options that best aligned with their specialties or specific interests.

 

Gina Dellatte’s keynote address was, to say the very least, inspiring. As an ELA teacher in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District for 13 years, she has met her fair share of teenagers. Her talk was titled “Mountain or River? Building Classroom Communities.” She began her keynote by having all attendees participate in an activity where we were asked to define ourselves using only binary choices; Are you the hammer or the nail, the wind of the leaf, the mountain or the river? It was harder than you’d think and that was the point Dellatte was trying to make. Teenage students already have so much on their plate and everything seems like the end of the world. Imagine growing up and on top of all the other confusing things you’re experiencing, you are struggling to fit yourself into one of the boxes we call “gender.” Dellatte spoke about her personal experiences with growing up and the challenges she faced while working out who she truly is. Her keynote speech addressed the importance of making all students feel comfortable in being themselves and provided ways educators can do so. She ran through the basic concepts using a great diagram and spoke about why it is necessary to use “person-centered language” as opposed to “person-first language.” The overarching theme I took away from the keynote was something Dellatte said. She said “Just being an accepting presence for students can sometimes make the entire difference.”

 

The first workshop I attended was “Hands (and Feet) on Learning: The NY Giant Traveling Map” led by Nordica Holochuck of New York Sea Grant and Susan Hoskins from the Institute for Resource Information Sciences at Cornell University. The first thing I noticed upon entering the room was the giant, GIANT, map of New York State laid out on the floor. It was hard to miss; The thing took up three quarters of the floor! The map was created by National Geographic with the purpose of “introducing geography and map reading skills to students, grades K-8” (Learn more here: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/education/giant-traveling-maps/). They began their session by asking participants to remove their shoes and walk around on the map. We were provided little orange cones with the instruction to “place them anywhere that means something to you.” People placed their cones all over NY state in places ranging from their hometown, to the place they were born, to places they would like to go, or places that just had funny names. We went around the room introducing ourselves and explaining why we placed our cones where we did.( I placed mine on the Long Island Sound because I live near the beach and learned to swim in the Sound!) After acquainting ourselves with both the map and each other, we participated in several different activities geared towards elementary aged children. As a future elementary educator, I was surprised to learn how versatile the map was. Though the games and activities we were doing would be perfect for students in 3rd or 4th grade, I could think of a million other activities for middle school, high school, and even college aged students! We completed a land features scavenger hunt, guessed where specific landmarks were, learned about why grids are helpful on a map, and played “Navigator and Explorer,” A game in which one person, the navigator, uses the cardinal directions to steer their explorer to the correct place on the map. Each participant left the session with an information packet containing details regarding renting the map among other things. The session emphasized the importance of spatial learning and how learning geography can help students to have a better sense of place.

 

After having a quick snack, I attended my second workshop which was led by Adam Sanchez, a social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High school and editorial board member, Rethinking Schools. The workshop was titled “Teaching a People’s History of the New Deal.” He began the session by explaining that students are primarily taught history through the lens of the presidents or leaders at the time. We hardly ever get to hear the viewpoints of those who were just like we are, the people or the general public. Sanchez’s lesson on the New Deal doesn’t focus solely on FDR and his involvement in it. Instead, it takes a look at the types of people the New Deal was made for. Sanchez utilizes a role playing activity to help students to understand what the New Deal really is. Participants in this workshop were split into equal groups and assigned a specific type of person in society to play. My group was given Corporate Executives. After reading a short bio about our character, we were asked to step into their mindset and answer questions regarding the different components of the New Deal. After completing the questions for our character, each group sent a representative to other groups in an attempt to form alliances thus strengthening their demands. After all alliances had been formed, each group crafted a short speech to FDR outlining their demands for the New Deal and a different representative from each group read it out loud to the room. Sanchez, in the role of Franklin Roosevelt himself, then explained why each of the alliances would or would not have worked in the time of the New Deal and went into detail about how each of the sections really worked out in the end. Participants were then provided with a copy of the actual Deal and asked to analyze who they think really won the New Deal.

 

My final workshop of the day was titled “Bringing the New Deal to a New Generation.” After learning all about the New Deal from the people’s perspective with Sanchez, I was interested in learning about it from FDR’s perspective. The session was led by Jeff Urbin, Education Specialist at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. He provided the group with a brief introduction to the Library and Museum and touched upon how teachers can get their students involved in FDR’s history by visiting the site. Urbin spoke about the newest exhibit, “Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II” (Learn about the current exhibit here: https://fdrlibrary.org/). After telling us how to navigate the museum, we were let loose to explore on our own. Though I have visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum before, walking through it this time proved to be a different experience entirely. I now had a background of knowledge about the artifacts and information I saw before me. The displays only solidified my new understanding of the New Deal and was a great was to follow up Sanchez’s workshop.

 

On Wednesday, I attended a field trip to Newburgh led by Ginny McCurdy, an ELA teacher at the Newburgh Free Academy. The day was packed with interesting things to do and learn about in the city. We began the day at the ferry terminal and read aloud a poem, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman, that set the tone for the entire day. We rode the ferry out onto the Hudson and saw Newburgh in a whole different light. It looks strangely beautiful with the light from the water glinting off of all the buildings! After docking, we walked to the Newburgh Brewing Company where we learned about the historical significance of the building and how the brewing company is connected with farms and places all around the Hudson River Valley. From there we visited Washington’s Headquarters where we were given an extremely informative tour of the house and museum. After splitting up for lunch, we gathered once again at Safe Harbors and the Ritz Theatre where McCurdy explained how she came to develop this field trip. She explained how helping students to look at the historical significance of their town can open their eyes to all the different ways they can contribute to their very own community. Especially in a community like Newburgh, where many students feel as if they are stuck in a rut, the importance of exposing them to new and interesting things close to home can help inspire hope for the future. After weeks of studying history, art, and literature relating to their town, students spend a day exploring their town through a historical lens and gain a new appreciation for where they live. The last thing we did was tour the Crawford House at which we learned about the fashion and style of a wealthy family in the early 19th century. The day provided me with the foundation to potentially build a similar experience for my future students in their own town and has inspired me to learn more about where I live.

 

On Thursday, the final day, I attended two workshops. The first was “Safe Schools for All: Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students” led by GLSEN Hudson Valley and the second was “Opening More Closets at Val-Kill: Finding American History” led by Frank Futral, curator at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites.

 

The first workshop, held by Rob Conlon and Peter Mostachetti from GLSEN Hudson Valley, was taught the best practices for providing a safe learning environment for every student, especially those who do not fall into traditionally accepted norms about appearance and expression of self. The workshop was geared towards opening our minds and striving to understand the plights of those who don’t follow traditional gender norms. We began the session by going around the room and writing the first thing that comes to mind when you read words such as “gay, bisexual, transgender, male, female, straight” etc. we were told there were no wrong answers as the point of the activity was to understand our own lens before working to expand it. The entire session was powerful but the part that stuck with me the most was when a high school student, Lee, spoke to us about his experience as a trans student in the Hudson River Valley. He talked about the steps he took to feel comfortable in his own skin and how he helped educators in his school to understand the right moves to take. Lee explained that the best thing a teacher can do for any transgender or gender nonconforming student is to “not make things awkward.” No student wants to confront the teacher in the first place and making it as painless as possible is an enormous step in helping them to feel safe and welcome in your classroom. A big theme of the workshop was that a safe and welcoming environment is the most conducive environment for students to learn and that’s what all teachers need to strive for so we can educate our students to the best of their abilities.

 

My last workshop was “Opening Closets at Val-Kill: Finding American History” led by Frank Futral. I found that this was the perfect follow up to the safe schools workshop I had just attended as Futral’s session discussed the mystery surrounding Eleanor Roosevelt’s sexual orientation. He spoke about the importance of understanding ER’s relationships with people and how through learning about her connections with others we can uncover why she did the things she did. The session touched on the LGBTQ history at Val-Kill and how by understanding things about the role of females during ER’s time, the couples that built and maintained Val-Kill, and Er’s work to build an inclusive society, we come to know more about ER as a person. A topic that emerged from discussions in the workshop was the fact that some people travel to historic places in search of LGBTQ links. The big question is are we doing those people a disservice by not calling Eleanor Roosevelt a “lesbian?” Futral responded to this with a poignant quote that has stuck with me for several days now: “If Eleanor didn’t call herself a lesbian how can we?” The sentiment behind this statement carries on into many other walks of life, especially education. Educators must remember that students are who they are and it is not up to us to try to fit them into a neat little box.

 

The THV institute came to a close late Thursday afternoon with a brief address by our very own Col. Jim Johnson followed by a keynote by Vinnie Bagwell, a sculptor out of Yonkers, and Ty Gray-El, a phenomenal storyteller. Bagwell is currently working on a project called the Enslaved Africans Rain Garden. The project’s aim is to shed light on the lives of the enslaved Africans who lived at Philipse Manor. The garden pulls talents from all over the art community. Ty-Gray EL is one such example. As a storyteller he was able to humanize Bagwell’s sculptures. His stories are what bring these characters to life and pull on people’s ability to sympathize. (More information about Gray-EL and his stories can be found here: http://www.tygrayel.com/).

 

Overall, my first experience at Teaching the Hudson Valley is something I’ll never forget. The lessons I learned through the institute are things I will carry with me throughout the rest of my time as a student and into my years as a teacher. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to attend THV and make connections with educators in the area and to learn information about a place I knew little about.

-Gabi Perpignand, Frank T. Bumpus Intern

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