Vermont Archives Week

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(Host) Though you may not have heard about it, next week is Vermont Archives Week. Commentator Tom Slayton is here to tell us more about it.

(Slayton) How do you tell America’s story to students? How do you tell Vermont’s story? One of the small-but-fierce debates now raging in the world of history education is a fight over how American history gets told in classroom textbooks.

Should texts still focus mostly on the exploits of dead white males — heroes like Washington and Jefferson? Or should outstanding women like Clara Barton or Eleanor Roosevelt get more ink? Instead of great figures, should we focus instead on the common man and tell history in terms of social movements? Who is telling America’s story, and what are they emphasizing — or leaving out? Everyone, it seems, has a point of view, and the debate has no clear end in sight.

However, some Vermont historians have a suggestion that is brilliant in its simplicity: Skip the texts altogether. Let’s go back to the original documents, they say, and let students look for themselves. Let’s dig into the archives!

Next week — November 7-13 — is Vermont Archives Week. And so Vermont historians and archivists are using the special week to celebrate the work of Vermont teachers who incorporate historical records into their lesson plans.

Researching and understanding original historical records changes history from a collection of boring dates and facts that have to be memorized into an historical mystery story — with each student as a

“It brings history down to the particular,” declares state Archivist Gregory Sanford.

When a student finds an anti-slavery petition in the local Town Clerk’s office, or discovers cemetery records that suggest many of the people buried in a certain Vermont cemetery were black — and had served with honor in the Civil War — 19th century history with all its conflicts and idealism comes alive in a way that no textbook can match. History didn’t happen somewhere else to someone else, the archives tell us; history happened here.

“Primary sources are the lifeblood of history,” according to former Teacher of the Year Michelle Forman of Middlebury.

Beth Hayslett, who teaches Eighth Grade in Woodstock, agrees. Hayslett used local probate records to teach her students about the Woodstock of 1800. It was, she said, “like time-traveling back to 1800 without having to muck out the stalls, sleep on a rush-filled bed, or darn one’s own socks.”

There are many other similar projects around Vermont. History is coming to life in each of them, and something else even more important may be happening as well.

Rather than being spoon-fed history out of a book, students are discovering history on their own — and thinking about it.

“You’re forcing a student to look at a core document and ask ‘What does it mean?'” explains state Archivist Sanford.

What that means is that students are being taught to think for themselves — acutely and critically.

And critical thinking is perhaps the most important part of a good education — and a working democracy.

(Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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