Teachers face a seemingly insurmountable challenge today. With endless testing, shrinking resources, and restricted curriculums, how do you bring a classroom to life and make a lecture on the Civil War or slavery relevant to your students? How do you help them see the past as directly connected to their everyday lives? The answer might be to start with something that’s already part of their lives, something that’s right in their own backyards.
That’s the idea that led Leondra Burchall, Director of African American Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH), to take sixteen teachers, administrators, and librarians on a tour of African American historic sites across the Commonwealth in July 2014.
The objective was for [participants] to engage with the people working with the historic sites and to incorporate local history into their curriculum. – Leondra Burchall
Sixteen educators participated in two separate tours that visited a total of fourteen sites selected from VFH’s African American Historic Sites Database. The tours, called “Think Historically, Act Locally,” drew educators from across the state and exposed them to historic sites in their own and other Virginia communities.
While visiting the Virginia Historical Society (VHS) in Richmond, the participants received an introduction to a database of Virginia slave names, called Unknown No Longer, before taking a behind-the-scenes tour of some of VHS’s collections. One attendee—Danah Dargon, a music teacher from Chesterfield—discovered a collection of sheet music at VHS that she can share with her students.
I was born in Virginia, went through the public school system, and I didn’t know a lot of these resources were out there. Even though it’s here in our own back yards, it’s not in our history books, it’s not taught in our classrooms. – Danah Dargon
Each site visit was researched and selected so that what participants experienced at one site built on what they’d learned at the previous sites. When the tour left the Virginia Historical Society and went to the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, also in Richmond, participants saw up close some of the objects they’d learned about while exploring the collections at VHS. After learning about African art and sculpture at the Hampton University Museum, they applied what they learned when viewing the elaborately sculptured gravestones at the Freedmen Cemetery in Alexandria.
There were ‘wow’ moments throughout the whole tour. I had an epiphany at each site we visited. – Aurelia Crawford, Monticello
Each tour lasted three days and provided an in-depth look at a diverse group of African American historic sites in Virginia. The African American Historic Sites Database holds more than 300 records and VFH’s Encyclopedia Virginia (EV) holds hundreds more entries on Virginia’s African American history.
In 2014 children still aren’t learning about African American history. It’s not woven into the fabric of the American narrative in the way it should be. The onus still falls to cultural organizations like VFH and our partners to share these resources with teachers and students. – Leondra Burchall
VFH has been working with teachers to weave the many threads of Virginia’s story together since our founding in 1974. From 1998 to 2009, our “Roots” summer teacher’s seminars examined the African dimensions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Our Encyclopedia Virginia staff has worked with teachers to develop lesson plans that incorporate EV into their classrooms. Karenne Wood, director of VFH’s Virginia Indian Programs, has been directly involved in shaping the Virginia Standards of Learning that cover what is taught about native peoples in public schools.
Programs like “Think Historically, Act Locally” help teachers forge connections between the past and present, between the narrative of our national history and the history of their own communities. Those connections will be passed on to their students, presenting them with a more complete picture of Virginia, our story, and our place in history.