The Young Curators is an after-school program led by Brooklyn Historical Society educators guiding students through a themed investigation of their school’s neighborhood using primary sources from BHS’s collection and other resources. Based upon their given theme (i.e. Colonial Brooklyn or the Evolution of East New York), students create a three-panel exhibit that is eventually displayed at their school. Students write the text, recreate images through drawings, and choose images like maps and portraits to be included. They even work with a graphic designer for the colors, fonts, and design of each panel. This post is by BHS educator Charlotte Martin.
On the last day of Young Curators at PS 32, after students finished editing their exhibit panel text and writing captions for their panel images, I asked the young curators—fourth and fifth graders, some on the autism spectrum—what they are most proud of from their time in the program. I realized that I wanted to know not just what they enjoyed about the program or what information they learned. I wanted to know what made them stick with the program and what positive impact would stick with them, if any.
Almost all of the students mentioned something about being proud of learning about the history of their own neighborhood—the area around the Gowanus Canal. I saw this, too, in an anecdote one student shared with me earlier that session, about how he and his mom had noticed for the very first time an old church while walking nearby. It was the first thing he told me that day, and he shared how they talked about why it was made of brick and why there are so many other buildings nearby from the late 1800s that are also made of brick. I was thrilled to see this student so excited about exploring his neighborhood in the context of its history and change over time.
A few of the students also expressed pride in the process: that they “did research” or that they “made more than one thing.” They seemed to feel a sense of accomplishment in their work and their creation. Going into the program, I did not know specifically what aspect of Gowanus’ history we would focus on or even what artifacts I would show them beyond the first couple of introductory sessions on change over time (using the transformation of the Gowanus Creek into the Gowanus Canal, visible in maps and other primary sources). Rather, I used their questions and ideas to determine what primary sources I would find and bring in for them to investigate; in this way, the students were in control of the direction of the research. For example, our field trip to the Hall of the Gowanus by Proteus Gowanus (housed in the former National Packing Box Factory) sparked their interest in manufactured gas plants, which I had not thought to focus on beforehand, but which would become one of the three main panel topics.
It was also up to the students to interpret the sources, and I experimented with a variety of approaches and configurations—individual, paired, and group work—to try to accommodate the curators’ diverse learning styles. I employed multiple modes of object inquiry, in the hopes of reaching students who learn best when discussing in pairs or writing ideas or drawing or imagining, while pushing the others to try a new approach. When wrapping up our study of the Coignet Building—an unusual historic site on 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street, surrounded by Whole Foods—I laid out our pieces of evidence and the students worked through the mystery of how and why the building went from famous showpiece of one of the earliest examples of concrete to seemingly abandoned and forgotten building. Students conjured their own visions for the future of the building, agreeing that making it into some sort of museum would be ideal.
On a trip to Brooklyn Historical Society, the young curators sat in the library and observed real historic images (I could bring only copies to their school), and one student who has difficulty with focus and some verbal communication leaped at the chance to decipher the handwriting on a postcard from 1917. The writer’s note about her trouble sleeping led the students to imagine what could have prompted this trouble (was it the canal’s stench?), and to consider more deeply how life and work near the canal might have been in that time period. Putting this postcard in the context of the waterway’s changing shape and life around it inspired the panel topic of Canal Life. Why, the students wondered, would anyone, much less immigrants from around the world, choose to work and live near a body of water so renowned for its stench?
The comment on the last day that struck me most, though, went something like this: “A lot of times, we have projects and our parents always want to help and say ‘I’ll do this; I’ll help with this,’ but I’m proud that we did this on our own.” Other students nodded along. My main goal as an educator is to empower learners of all ages and abilities to recognize and act upon opportunities for learning in all aspects of their lives. I had struggled with this ideal throughout the planning and teaching process for Young Curators, but all of my approaches (even the less successful ones, like writing as a whole group) were geared toward this goal. I am so pleased that these young curators are already extending their learning outside the program and are confident in their autonomy as learners and their abilities to complete complex projects.
I cannot wait to check in with them and see what more they uncover without me!
Charlotte Martin, Educator
PS 32 Young Curators