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Teach History Students Can Touch

HOW MANY Long Island residents know the origins of the names of their hometown,

their street or their local high school? Very few.

There are many ways to investigate a community's political, economic, social,

religious and educational history, as well as the lives of its more notable

inhabitants, but far too many of us fail to take advantage. Learning about the

history of where we live is one of the best ways to develop a connection to the

community and a respect for the treasures of its past.

The Island does house 114 local historical societies and organizations, but

most people do not take them seriously. Apart from more popular historical

sites and museums such as Old Bethpage Village, the Museums at Stony Brook and

the whaling museum at Sag Harbor, history collections in local libraries hardly

are consulted. Most historical museums are dustbins - shelves and shelves of

artifacts - and the local historian is perceived as nothing more than a crusty

old "fuddy duddy."

How can we take local history seriously? Let's start with schools, which need

to begin teaching local history as vigorously as they do global and American

history. In the 1980s, the State Board of Regents revised its social studies

curriculum to include the teaching of community history as early as fourth


Sadly, however, the emphasis is on the present - on how communities function -

rather than on how they came to be. Where history is studied, most teachers

take a "roots" approach, emphasizing family histories as opposed to an

investigation of the community and its traditions. Little effort is made to

find out what historical resources are available.

Teachers can do better. The editor of the Long Island Historical Journal, Roger

Wunderlich, maintains that "Long Island can be used to teach American history,

in general, from colonial times to the present." To do this, teachers need to

provide hands-on experience in historical research, to wean students away from

textbook dependency. Students need to feel a tangible connection to the land

and people where they live. This means shifting emphasis from the larger events

and figures of history to the smaller things, the unfamous lives and events,

which are just as important in the sweep of historical change.

Some years ago I created a local history journal with students at Amityville

Memorial High School. I encouraged them to work with the data of local history

- diaries, autobiographies, oral history interviews, personal letters, village

board minutes, local newspapers, census data - to understand how Amityville

residents lived at certain times and reacted to particular events.

My hope was that students would learn to think critically and carefully, to

better understand the effects of public opinion, prejudice, personal likes and

dislikes and the healing effects of time.

Two energetic African Americans studied the relationship cultivated more than

100 years ago between black and native-American families in North Amityville,

where they lived. Another student, who lived in the village proper, examined

how historic homes had been preserved over the generations.

Students went into the field, interviewing residents, visiting sites and using

materials at the Amityville Historical Society. During a three-year period in

the mid-1980s, successive classes produced a trilogy that covered

chronologically the history of Amityville from the turn of the 19th Century to

the present. The research was published and distributed to the community and is

now available in the public library and at the historical society.

The students chronicled, among other subjects, family life, the

African-American experience, village politics, the school system, the

experiences of overseas combat veterans, de facto segregation of the public

schools, the success of the varsity football program under legendary coach Lou

Howard and, of course, the "Amityville Horror."

The local history project has continued over the years, with students sometimes

recycling source materials in fresh ways. Now we use a topical, as opposed to

a chronological, approach. Students have examined local institutions -

churches, hospitals, grand old hotels. And they have traced local connections

to a larger slice of Island life - to the civil rights movement and the Vietnam


Do the students achieve a sense of connectedness and does the community respond

in kind? Yes. Senior citizens are delighted to talk about growing up in

Amityville. The local historical society has sponsored a scholarship for the

best essay on local history. The village board instituted mock public meetings

to stimulate students' participation in government. Prospective home buyers and

newly assigned clergymen consult the history journals to get a feel for


The crowning success occurred in the early 1990s, when the school district

sponsored a centennial celebration of the Park Avenue School. Their interest

sparked by the history project, residents worked hand-in-hand with students and

school-district personnel to stage a series of commemorative events, not only

linking school and community, but also past and present - a homecoming parade

featuring high school graduates since 1920, a memorabilia exhibit, a 12-hour

video of graduates' recollections and burial of a centenial time capsule.

Certainly it is easier to pull off such projects in places like Amityville,

where there are active local archives or museums, but teachers can replicate

this kind of course anywhere.

They can pursue leads by word of mouth, check county census records, become

familiar with collections in the local libraries, consult with historical

societies and read their periodicals.

No question, this kind of instruction is labor-intensive. Teachers of local

history cannot rely on textbooks, films and other published sources because the

material does not exist. But there are new state requirements mandating

greater use of primary sources and pursuing questions from documents rather

than textbooks, and signs are that this kind of teaching is catching on.

Elementary school students in Patchogue-Medford have produced an oral history.

Teachers in Amityville have written a local history text. The Cold Spring

Harbor School District has produced a historical video.

At the same time, the Port Washington Library is conducting a local

oral-history project and the Hallock Farm Museum on the North Fork has produced

a text for young readers on life in the mid-19th Century. The Long Island

Studies Institute at Hofstra University has awakened consciousness by

sponsoring publications, conferences and workshops for educators.

The Amityville student researchers realize that their subjects are real people

and organizations, and that past events are an integral part of what their

community is all about. They are doing much more than memorizing facts and

dates. One local historian, Mary Jane Cook of Connecticut, says that

researching local history "helps us to extend ourselves, to understand what we

have not personally experienced, to bond with those from different times and


As teachers, we need to bring the past to life so that we can forge a new and

better understanding of the communities in which we live, as well as prepare

young people to meet their community's needs in the years of history to come.

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