Washington Irving Fifth Graders Learn Scholarly Ways —With the Help of the Rockefeller Archives

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by Barrett Seaman  –

One of 34 fifth-graders who displayed projects at Washington Irving School.

The long corridor of the Washington Irving School’s main floor was lined end to end with poster displays—each attended by a neatly-dressed fifth grade student, ready to explain to visitors (most of them parents and other relatives) what his or her project was all about. Each display followed the same format: the center panel was labeled “Target Question” and included both the hypothesis and the conclusion. The left-hand panel was labeled “Process,” outlining step-by-step how the student reached a conclusion, while the right-hand panel listed “Sources”—primary, secondary and tertiary, and in some cases the flash cards the students used to record their sourcing.

Even for these honor students, selected for teacher Elizabeth Hickey’s Challenge Class, this was pretty heady stuff. For 45 minutes, five days a week over six weeks, these students delved into the world of scholarly research on the subjects of immigration, tenement life and the impact of philanthropy in New York City more than a century ago. What made their projects even more remarkable was that they had access to primary sources, stored in nearby Pocantico Hills at the Rockefeller Archives Center (RAC), the nation’s premier repository for historical materials from not only the Rockefeller family’s own prodigious charitable activities and organizations but also from many of the nation’s other major philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation, Social Science Research Council, the Russell Sage Foundation, Asia Society and Trilateral Commission. (see box, page 00)

To narrow the scope of the students’ research, teacher Hickey and Marissa Vassari of the RAC, provided them with more than a dozen documents related to the chosen topics. Several of them were letters written to John D. Rockefeller Sr. or his son, who would carry on the family’s philanthropic activities well into the 20th Century. They were very direct and personal solicitations for funds, written long before non-profits raised money through sophisticated mass mailings. They were written by the men and women who ran legendary charities created to address the social, medical and economic ills that came with mass migration—places like the Henry Street and Grand Street Settlements, the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, one of the few sources of learning for the young Jewish girls who lived with their families in overcrowded tenements and were forced to work at an early age.

With these snippets of history in hand, the 34 fifth graders in the class were challenged to zero in on a specific element, to formulate a hypothesis and to boil it down to a threshold question that they would then attempt to answer, using the Rockefeller material and any other sources they could find. Several chose to focus on the experiences of females in tenement life, whether Irish or Jewish or Italian, the three major immigrant waves at the turn of the century. Others looked at health—what was hygiene like in a one-room apartment with no antibiotics?

Ms. Hickey gave them each a checklist of questions provided by Stanford University. What was the context of the document they were citing? What evidence does its author provide? Can the information be corroborated? She challenged them to show why the information in their documents provided reasonable and valid responses to the question they posed. They were required to annotate everything they wrote. “It tethers their creative thinking to a source,” says Hickey, “—to reality.”

Naturally, many of the students turned to the internet for corroboration and contextualization. They found pieces of the puzzle wherever they could. In some cases, they found answers within their own families. Mika’s grandparents were themselves immigrants that settled on New York’s lower east side. Aailyah’s family emigrated from Guatemala and faced many of the same challenges immigrants of a century ago faced. Michael, whose threshold question was why immigrants came to America, was able to ask his own parents, who came here from Romania.

The exercise brought its share of “aha” moments. Ms. Hickey particularly savors a class-wide recognition that there was a relationship between the industrial barons who created the demand for cheap labor, the masses of people that came to fill the jobs they offered, and the port city of New York as the disembarkation point for them and their families. It was, she says, “like a bolt of recognition shot through the room, adding: “It was one of those times as a teacher when you stop and say ‘This is why I am doing this.’”

Their research completed, the students then trained in making a professional presentation. Ms. Hickey coached them to answer questions directly—and to admit when they didn’t have an answer. After the hallway display of their individual projects, they took to the school auditorium’s stage in three groups to answer questions from the audience. If one of them wished to provide more information to an answer given by a peer, they were trained to say “Adding to what Clio just said….”  One could only wish for such civility on our Sunday TV talk shows.

Speaking of and for her students after the panel discussion, Ms. Hickey explained to the audience how this exercise helped them to understand what a primary source is, a secondary source and a tertiary source “and what the difference is.” At a time when fake news often comes well-disguised, these seemed highly relevant tools.

Hickey will get another group of exceptional fifth graders next year. Since she also teaches 3rd and 4th graders, she is familiar with the upcoming crop and will tailor next year’s assignment to them. Whatever it is, the Rockefeller Archives Center will once again be a primary resource.

The February 12 presentation at Washington Irving School was not the end of it. That Friday, the students were bused up to the RAC itself, where they put up their display panels anew in the elegant rooms of the Rockefeller estate and answered questions, this time from the professional archivists and researchers who work there. As she waited from one of the scholars to approach her panel display, Clio confessed, “I’m very nervous”—even more so than when her family came to see her at the beginning of the week. “These people are professionals,” she whispered.

With this kind of training and teachers like Elizabeth Hickey, so too might Clio be one day.

Also read Treasures Within a Treasure: The Rockefeller Archives Center…

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