As a Social Studies Teacher that works in the Washington Irving Campus, a historic NYC Public School building which opened its doors in 1913 and which my grandmother attended in the 1930's, it's so gratifying that some of my students' favorite learning experiences connect to artwork and artifacts created within our very school. As an educator passionate about the teaching profession and public schools, it’s a wonderful feeling to be able foster students' curiosity and sense of discovery through the lens of schooling. My students enter Union Square Academy for Health Sciences knowing little about the school's namesake and history, yet are so eager to dig into artifacts and experiences connected to former students' lives and education.
I am excited to be working with other educators and historians to collaborate on unique ways to to incorporate local history, and specifically the history of public schooling, into student learning. Students now look at old student yearbooks to learn more about the past, and how students ave documented their experiences for classmates. My students are also working to identify patterns & trends in the student body demographics throughout the years. Some social studies classes are using artifacts such as an old civics day assembly programs from 1946 to discuss various Supreme Court interpretations of the 1st Amendment and make connections to their own civic engagement.
Students are eager to look at articles, artifacts and photos of a turn of the 20th Century Boys & Girls Youth Police squad program in NYC. These objects not only foster student engagement, they help students make connections to contemporary experiences, such as its modern incarnation of the NYPD Explorers Program as well as big thematic issues such as the role of the police, both in and out of our schools. Since the pandemic, I have used pictures and articles on the Open Air Schools Movement which was meant to combat Tuberculosis and the Spanish Flu. Such relevant historical sources provide context to the current challenge we face during the covid19 pandemic. Students referenced these sources and responses when they took part in a project to craft proposals to NYC City Council about how to keep students and teachers safe and educated.
Since the start of covid, schooling has been in an odd limbo with many high school students choosing to isolate educationally and preferring to learn in isolation. In 2021, the few students that attended school in person after school closures were confined to one classroom during the day to learn through a computer, teachers and classmates elsewhere. This new reality motivated me to engage several students physically present in school, yet mentally, emotionally frustrated, to work together with me to piece together and rediscovering the amazing history of teaching and learning that has taken place in our school building. These students were surprised to learn that many of the opportunities that make our school unique, including our Arts and CTE (Career & Technical Education) program has deep roots that extend back to 1913. Marty Raskin shared incredible objects and photos from his personal collection, much of which documents the teaching and learning in our building. My favorite is this booklet from the girls’ welcoming committee, written by students to incoming freshmen, or more accurately freshwomen (Washington Irving was all girls up until 1986 and the Federal enforcement of Title 9), explaining all the amazing career and technical classes offered at our school when it was first founded.
To celebrate the September 2021 return to school and welcome students back for in person learning, we first launched an exhibition on the history of teaching, learning and student life in the historic Washington Irving Campus.
CREATE AN EXPERIENCE THAT CHANGES THE WAY STUDENTS SEE SCHOOL
I love to start off a school year by taking my students on an in school field trip to analyze the various murals that can be found around the building. The lobby’s walls are covered by wood panels, and toward the ceiling are beautiful painted murals illustrating Washington Irving’s A History of New York by Barry Faulkner depicts New Amsterdam and early Manhattan. I use the maps, flags, nautical scenes and indigenous animals found within the murals to introduce students to Dutch and English settlements and the effect occupation had on the Lenape who called Mannahatta island their home.
Another mural by illustrator Robert Knight Ryland on the back wall of the auditorium depicts The Dutch and Indians trading is my students' favorite. It looks like one of the Natives is taking a selfie, but in fact is looking at himself in a mirror. I use this mural to teach students how to think like a historian, asking them to analyze the illustrator's Point of View, Audience, Purpose and Accuracy. Did Natives actually dress like that? Is the depiction of Native women as bare breasted historically accurate or was this an attempt to depict them as exotic, savage or primitive? For students first project in US History they will analyze and source a mural of their choosing for authorship, purpose, perspective and bias and then write a formal caption.
Students also debate how to memorialize the past and the controversy surrounding historical depictions in public schools by making comparisons to other high schools, such as George Washington in San Francisco. In 2022, students reached a unanimous consensus that the lobby should be preserved for posterity and as a result students began to petition and applied to the NYC landmarks commission to seek interior landmarking status. In 2023, student position on the murals were more mixed with several students adamant on replacement and preferring new artworks. Students engage in civil civic discourse and grapple with these multiple perspectives, ultimately deciding for themselves how to take action on historic preservation.
Do you want to learn more about the history of Washington Irving High School? Click Below.
Over the years, students have told me that this is the coolest field trip they have been on, even though its technically "not a trip" because we didn’t leave school. Since all our students must go through metal detectors upon entry, I'm glad this historic lobby can be experienced in a different, more academic way.
These types of experiences connect students to local history and the legacy left by all students and educators that came before them. I build on this experience throughout the school year by sharing journals and notebooks that have been preserved from Washington Irving students so they can learn first hand about American history through the eyes and experiences of students, students who learned in the same classrooms and entered school everyday through the very same lobby.
In February 2024, students will discuss the history of the school with author and historian Jonathan Ned Katz who is seeking information about WIHS as part of his research about Eve Adams who attended general language classes to learn English, like so many other immigrants of days past and present.