A School Grows in Brooklyn

Fifth Graders in a discussion with science teacher Syndra Mallery.

Fifth Graders in a discussion with science teacher Syndra Mallery.

Brooklyn Historical Society’s oral history collections contain wonderful childhood memories of street games like stoop ball and skully, and trips to Prospect Park and Coney Island. It’s amazing the details that people remember from 60 to 80 years ago, such as the sound of a Dodger’s game on the radio while the Myrtle Avenue Elevated rumbles nearby…

To add to these fond reflections, BHS thought a collection of oral history interviews with kids today, who still play street games and go on field trips and can’t wait to ride the subway on their own, would be a great addition to the oral history collections.  With that in mind, five years ago, Brooklyn Historical Society embarked on a unique oral history project with a citywide gifted & talented elementary school opening in Brooklyn: Brooklyn School of Inquiry.  Our shared goal was to document the growth of this new K-8 school in Bensonhurst through oral history interviews with First Graders, and collect stories about life in Brooklyn from a child’s perspective.  You can see a video of that first year of interviews (2010) here.

Through this project, students as young as six years-old are introduced to primary sources, archival collections, and the subjectivity of historical interpretation.  They love the idea that their interviews are being preserved at BHS and will be heard by people 150 years in the future.

We brainstorm about what people in the future might be curious to learn about their past (our present).  And students ask astute questions such as, How can we be sure that archivists in the future won’t throw these recordings out? Answer: We trust in the mandate of the archival profession and BHS’s Collections Policy.  And, What happens if technology changes and the digital audio is no longer playable?  Answer: Technology will change and we trust that archivists in the future will migrate the digital audio to whatever new media exists, just as we migrate audio cassette tapes into digital audio.

In the archives world, we talk about the “research value” of collections, i.e. what historical evidence will future researchers unearth from these materials.  Beyond being charming, the stories of these 6, 7, 8, and 9 year olds contain rich information about contemporary life in Brooklyn.  Students describe the important people in their lives and their various activities before, during, and after school, and we come to understand just how many adults it takes to care for one child.  Students talk about the many languages they speak at home or hear in their neighborhoods and we understand the wonderful diversity of this borough. This collection provides excellent insight into the lives of “digital natives” who do not watch much television, but love YouTube. Students describe inventing playground games and creating worlds in the computer game Minecraft. Through the lives of these students we hear about the impact of local and national events such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 2012 Presidential election, Boston Marathon Bombing, and Hurricane Sandy.  Most pleasurable are the moments when we hear these young people discovering a new interest, hobby, book, or skill and we can see their intrinsic curiosity taking root.

Publishing celebration, sharing work with Fifth Grade teacher Sevgi Unay.

Publishing celebration, sharing work with Fifth Grade teacher Sevgi Unay.

This year, BHS will teach the Fifth Graders at BSI to interview their classmates.  They will learn how to prepare thoughtful, open-ended questions and practice engaged listening.  BHS is proud of this dynamic project and partnership, which is an excellent and unique teaching initiative, as well as a great way to build collections documenting today’s Brooklyn.

Want to learn more about oral history at Brooklyn Historical Society? Check out the oral history section of our website.

Photos by Brooklyn School of Inquiry, 2013

Sady Sullivan

About Sady Sullivan

Sady Sullivan is Director of Oral History at the Brooklyn Historical Society.
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