A Tale of Three Biographies: Teaching American History

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An important component of the MHC’s Teaching American History program—an in-depth series of seminars, institutes, and research sessions for Maine teachers to learn more about history through the stories of individuals—is the writing of an original biography. Each year since this program’s start in 2002, MHC staff and project scholars have been wowed by what teachers have created. But in 2011, this “wow” reached a whole new level, with some biographies fit for publication.

We asked three Teaching American History teachers to share their stories of what this program has meant to them personally and to their classrooms. [As of 2011, the US Department of Education is no longer offering this grant opportunity.]

Thomas Light

6th Grade Teacher

Paris Elementary School, South Paris

When I graduated from Antioch College in 1978, no one told me that I would spend three years reading biographies. No one told me that I would participate in fifteen colloquia after work and three two-week summer institutes to listen to historians and authors describe the people and times presented in our readings and discuss the books with these scholars and a group of colleagues who love history. To research and write a biography, and consider how to help students incorporate primary sources into their work? It is just as well, as I would not have believed anyone who told me these things.

My passion was understanding the earth and life and sharing this with children, and so I became a teacher of science. I taught in a small school and over the years was called upon to teach many subjects along with science—math, reading, and social studies. By this time, I had learned that I loved learning, no matter the subject. Despite this, my view of biography was still clouded by my experiences with them in my school years; boring books that presented two-dimensional images of heroic figures and the storybook paths that led them to their greatness. It was with some hesitation that I made the commitment to be part of the TAH program for two years.

When we were presented with the first biography, Doris Kearn Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, and I felt its heft, I wondered again what I was getting into. I didn’t have to delve far into the book before I realized that I could enjoy and understand biography. When we were asked to choose the subject of our own biography projects during our first summer institute, I decided I would write about my grandfather, Jerome Thomas Light, and his experience as principal at the Minidoka and Poston internment camps during World War II. My father had shared his experiences going to high school in the camps, and I had always been curious to learn more.

The family story was that he took this work on for altruistic reasons, to help an oppressed minority during their time of need. However, I was also aware that the camps provided him a perfect setting for the research he would do to earn his PhD. With help from Patrick Rael and Libby Mitchell, TAH scholars [and project leaders], I chose to write the biography as a lens through which I would view the motivations of civilian employees of the War Relocation Authority (WRA).

My research led me to many rich sources and some challenging gaps. Some of these were expected; I interviewed my father and his brothers and sorted through papers and letters and corresponded with some of the Japanese Americans who were students at Minidoka during my grandfather’s tenure there. Other finds were surprising. My grandfather’s application to Antioch College showed an adolescent unwillingness to try to impress the admissions office. References to my grandparents were found in the Antioch College yearbook, The Towers, that made it clear that theirs was a romance visible to most of their peers.

The challenges were just as important. I found few direct references to the circumstances that led to my grandfather’s transfer from Minidoka and a later demotion at Stockton Junior College. The archivists at government records offices could not find his employment records during his time at the WRA. I could find no reference about the existence of a WRA camp where he worked the year after the camps closed until I finally located a newspaper article about the closing of the office that quoted my grandfather.

I am extremely fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time. The TAH program broadened and deepened my understanding and knowledge of American history and the diverse people who created it. It awoke in me a passion for reading biography. Most of all, it gave me a passion and appreciation for the hunt that is history.

Melissa Margarones Wilson

English Teacher

Edward Little High School, Auburn

 

Participating in the Teaching History Through Biographies Program has meant the world to me. For the duration of the two-year program, I have been challenged as a scholar to not only read biographies of people who helped form various aspects of America in the realms of politics, art, and culture, but to also really redefine my own understanding of America and what it means to be an American, both currently and in centuries past.

Beyond personal academic progress, TAH has challenged me to bring this same scholarship into my classroom. I cannot count the number of times I told my students the topics of the biographies I was reading for the program, my own research for the program’s final required biography project, and/or my own process of researching and writing for the program. Participating in TAH helped me to lead my students in their own scholarship by example. I was actually doing what I was asking them to do. In fact, two of my students’ favorite assignments were directly inspired by my participation in TAH; writing mini-memoirs and researching/writing mini-biographies.

Throughout my experience in TAH, I have been treated as a professional. I have walked away from every class knowing that my thoughts and participation in class discussions have truly been valued by both the TAH staff and my peers in the program. For fifteen years prior to my participation in TAH, I have attended various workshops, graduate classes, and staff development, but my participation in TAH is the first time in my professional career that I have truly felt valued as a professional in the field of education and for my contribution to society as a teacher.

 

Matthew Laney

Social Studies Teacher

MSAD 15, Gray/New Gloucester

I am grateful to have been a member of the Maine Humanities Council’s Teaching American History Through Biography project for the past two years. The Project has given me the opportunity to regularly interact with fellow educators and to develop skills and knowledge which I can readily bring back to my classroom. Not surprisingly, my students have responded positively to the increased use of biography. In some ways, having students dig into biographies is as if they thought they were watching a reality show by reading the letters between John and Abigail Adams. We’ve converted Dorothea Lange’s travels out West into a list of tweets she could have sent out. I can’t say enough about the benefits of this program and how my students and I have benefited from it.

 

Originally Published in the Maine Humanities Council Newsletter Spring 2012 and Annual Report 2011