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How Do We Keep History Relevant and Exciting?

by on April 15, 2014


Today’s post comes from Elizabeth Dinschel, education specialist at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum.

I have thought often about the time I realized that I loved History. How do we, as teachers, convey our excitement for history to our students? Students are pushed into tech, science, and math-based careers because “history does not make money,” so how can teach them otherwise?  How can we make them value history? Personal experience.

Portrait, Lou Henry Hoover 1928

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum is opening an exhibit, America’s First Ladies, on April 16. Leading up to this day, I had spent many hours researching First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. We offer a Lou Henry Hoover Badge for the Girl Scouts that requires an archives activity. Naturally, I spent many hours sifting through Lou’s papers and I tasked an intern with reviewing my research. Weeks later C-Span was filming onsite for their First Lady series and naturally I was asked what items in Lou’s papers were the most interesting. I revisited the Lou papers, specifically her catalog of the White House.

Plate XIII, Lou Henry Hoover’s Catalog of the White House

The White House caught on fire in 1929. Lou Hoover was terrified that they did not have a description of the items in the White House. She hired an assistant and numbered, described, and photographed every item in the White House. The next First Lady to undertake the cataloging of the White House was Jackie Kennedy. Why is any of this important? What makes this more interesting to our students?

rug close up

Close up of rug from Plate XIII

While re-studying the catalog to share with C-Span, I discovered a rug in Lou’s office that was probably overlooked. The rug said, “To the United States with Eternal Gratitude From Hamme Belgium 1915,” Wilson (or Belgium) Rug #6 in Lou’s catalog. Herbert and Lou Hoover worked tirelessly as the leaders of the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, the topic of the Museum’s 2015 exhibit. So, I contacted the White House to learn more about the rug. To make a long story short, the rug is missing and was replaced with an oriental rug after the Truman renovation.

In the process, I worked closely with the White House and was invited to be a guest during my recent trip to Washington, DC. My historic research and Lou Henry Hoover brought me to the White House. I walked the same halls of Presidents and First Ladies from our country’s past. I had an amazing experience that most people will never get. When I tell my students that I was at the White House because my research led me there, they get excited. They want to see the catalog. The catalog is no longer just a collection of photos and stories to them, it is an opportunity.

It is not just this experience that is noteworthy, there are so many others. If we do not share the value of history with our students, they just see dates and books. Connecting our students with primary source documents gives them the opportunity to explore the stories and build their own. Sharing our stories as teachers and historians ignites passion and inspiration in our students. We see them taking the opportunity to conduct primary source research in National History Day and they are sharing their experiences with us!

I always tell my high school students about the time I fell in love with history. I was a junior in high school and I did an oral history interview with a holocaust survivor. I have done hundreds, if not a thousand, oral history interviews in my time. I tell my students, “explore your passions now because it can only help you.” Make history relevant and exciting by sharing your research stories. Encourage them to visit archives, incorporate their primary source research into their school projects, participate in National History Day, and use archival research in everyday life. Our adaptive learners are willing to look up the primary sources, if they know where to access them and how to use them—so let’s show our students where to find primary sources and let’s keep history relevant!

All of the photos are courtesy of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. 


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