Washington Irving School Students Dive Deep into Rockefeller Archives

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by Barrett Seaman

Elizabeth Hickey scans the cluttered second floor classroom at Tarrytown’s Washington Irving School, surveying her latest flock of Challenge Class students as they put the final touches on their poster board displays. These are the culmination of seven weeks of work. In just a few days, these 23 fifth graders will be standing in front of their posters, prepared to explain how they used primary, secondary and tertiary sources to find the answer to a question each one posed to him- or herself on the general topic of voter education. They were, she said, in a lot better shape than they had been just a week earlier.

Their first audience will be their parents and other family members whose anticipated questions they have been trained to answer—politely, articulately and, if possible, confidently—sharing what they have learned but ready to admit that which they don’t know—in other words, to sound like scholarly researchers. The next day, they will travel up to Pocantico Hills, to the Rockefeller Archives Center (RAC), where professional archivists who research documents for a living will review their findings and ask them about their methodology and sourcing, much of which started right there at the RAC.

This is the third year of a collaboration between Washington Irving and the Rockefeller Archives, 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.

Each year, the topic is different, but all of them rest upon students’ ability to access documents stored at the Center. To help foreshorten that process so that it falls within the capability of fifth graders over a seven-week course, the Center’s Marissa Vassari, working with Research Fellow Barry Goldberg and Archivist Beth Jaffe-Davis, herself a Washington Irving mom, curated a package of primary source materials designed to lead the students in search of an answer to a specific question.

Within the rubric of Voter Education, the students came up with a wide variety of questions (e.g. “What were the reasons for the Rockefeller contributions to the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Suffrage Campaign?” she found a check the family wrote; “How did powerful people and organizations interfere with African-American voting rights?”; “What did anti-suffragists think of suffragists?”). Finding a question that could be answered using scholarly research techniques wasn’t always easy. Finn went through three questions before finding one he felt he could pursue: “What is Voter Suppression?” A classmate revealed that at the beginning, he didn’t know what an archive was.

“I don’t mind if they struggle,” said Hickey, who knows this crop of firth graders because she also teaches third and fourth grades and can see the potential going into this extra course. “A week ago, they were still overwhelmed; some of them were near collapse.”

The transition from near collapse to breakthrough can be thrilling for these youngsters. In his dress rehearsal, Finn was brimming with confidence as he answered questions about his project. Candace, whose topic question was about the Rockefellers’ relationship with the League of Women’s Voters and Women‘s Suffrage, found a letter from Women’ Suffrage Alliance founder Carrie Chapman Catt. “It’s really cool how really a rich family like the Rockefellers can be involved with a not-so-rich organizations,” she said, noting that the family donated $300, which in today’s dollars would have been $2,800.

Those students who explored the reasons why women and African-Americans had to struggle to win the right to vote were often shocked by what they found. Mateo was stunned when he discovered Jim Crow laws, like the requirement that black men were prevented from voting if they could not prove that they had a grandfather who had voted, when it was a virtual certainty that their grandfathers were slaves who could not vote. Others were appalled by evidence they uncovered about Ku Klux Klan intimidation tactics, up to and including lynching. Annabelle was struck by the subtle ways women were discouraged from voting. “This is a very empathetic group,” Elizabeth Hickey told parents. “They were also spongy,” she added, meaning that once they got into it, they soaked up everything that came in sight. Both at Washington Irving School and the Rockefeller Archives Center, the hope is that these students will incorporate the scholarly techniques they used in this project in their schoolwork going forward. Says Rockefeller’s Barry Goldberg: “It’s the idea of how to find stuff in the first place.” Added Marissa Vassari, “They are learning research techniques they will use throughout their education.”

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