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 Rachel Serkin.
As an educator at Brooklyn Historical Society, I strongly believe that my role is not only to educate young people about the history of Brooklyn, but also to instill a sense of awareness and pride in the communities in which they live and learn. The Young Curators program granted me the opportunity to explore this idea with a group of fourth and fifth graders at P.S. 276 in Canarsie, Brooklyn. During our first session of the program, my students discussed what they knew about Canarsie and what things mattered to them most, such as holidays, traditions, family, and friends. I discovered right away that my students were passionate and caring individuals who had an interest in telling the story of Canarsie from their perspective.
In the sessions that followed, my students and I worked together to understand how historians think. At the beginning, my students were not sure about primary sources and how historians used them. Using resources from Brooklyn Historical Society’s library and archives, we were able to dig in and have first-hand experience with primary sources.
For the first two weeks my students explored artifacts, maps, photographs, and diary entries to better understand the neighborhood of Canarsie and how it has changed over time. While my students have always known that Canarsie used to be farmland, we were surprised to learn that according to nineteenth-century newspapers, Canarsie was known as one of the best places for catching bluefish. Because it was such a popular destination for fishing, Canarsie became renowned as a place of entertainment and leisure with hotels, resorts, and even an amusement park!
We also had a special opportunity to learn more about the people living in Canarsie today. Many of my students’ parents emigrated from the West Indies and they wanted to know more about why their families came to Brooklyn. To help us better answer this question we invited Ranger Andrea Boney of Ellis Island to our classroom. Andrea’s grandparents had emigrated from the West Indies through Ellis Island at the beginning of the twentieth century, and like so many of my students and their families, they came to the New York area seeking better education and economic opportunities. My students experienced a little bit of what it was like to go through Ellis Island by exploring health inspection cards and mental competency tests. The students were shocked to learn that children as young as ten could be sent back to their countries alone if they did not pass the inspections.
As the West Indian community came to New York they also brought the tradition of Carnival with them. Many of the students had either participated or knew of the West Indian Day Parade, but wanted to know more about its significance. Looking at photographs and newspaper articles, we learned that the parade originally began in Harlem, but by the 1960’s the parade had moved to Brooklyn. Today many neighborhoods are involved in the parade and millions of people participate. For the students, Carnival represents pride in their culture and heritage.
I feel proud and fortunate to have worked with the students of P.S. 276. It was a great pleasure to work with such inquisitive and dedicated students. It is my hope that these students will come away from the Young Curators program with new ideas about the role they play in the shaping of their community’s history.
Rachel Serkin, Educator
Brooklyn Historical Society thanks the City Council members who have funded this program through the CASA program in the past, present and future.