Hey! Don't I Know You? Making Connections to the Past and Present
In the fall of 2007, I had the good fortune to be invited by Alex Stein of the U.S. Department of Education to speak at the Teaching American History (TAH) Grant Project Coordinators' Conference in New Orleans, LA. To the audience of more than 750 participants, I told a story about an intriguing personal research experience inspired by a vague reference in an old annual report.
My talk began with a suggestion for making connections to information through documentary research; it concluded with a plea for making connections to people. In many ways, the transformation of my message in that presentation is reflective of my experience with the TAH program.
Since the program began, my team at the National Archives in Washington, DC and I have enjoyed being involved with dozens of grant-supported initiatives—colleagues from urban, rural, large, and small districts, and everywhere in between.
In our workshops, whether on-site, off-site, or by videoconference, we have introduced participants to the vast resources of the National Archives, extending across all of American history. From exploring George Washington's notes on the first printed draft of the Constitution, to the canceled check for the purchase of Alaska; from hand-drawn maps of Civil War battlefields, to photographs taken by Lewis Hine of child laborers, and much more, our participants have gained, to some degree, a deeper understanding of other times and places. By studying documents, they have made meaningful personal connections to past lives, eras, and events.
And interestingly, we have found that the TAH program has enabled meaningful personal connections in the present. Before the TAH program began, it was rare for us to run into a familiar face at a large conference of historians or educators. But in the past few years, it is commonplace to attend individual conference sessions and see a friend—or at least the friend of a friend. And the conversations that uncover these connections are great fun! They often begin with "Hey! Don't I know you?"
Communities of history educators certainly existed before the TAH program began—in schools and universities, in museums, in historical societies, in archives and libraries, and elsewhere. But before TAH, while some partnerships existed, it was uncommon for members of one community to interact on a regular basis with members of the others. And it was even less common for members of the various groups to know about the resources and expertise of the other. That has certainly changed.
My colleagues and I often comment that we feel much more connected to colleagues in the field as a result of the TAH program—we know this is in part due to the ease of email, listservs, and blogs. But, mostly it is because we work with so many more teachers and our counterparts in other archives, libraries, and museums on a regular basis. When we encounter a group with a particular interest—the presidency, for example—we love playing the role of matchmaker, introducing them to our colleagues in other institutions such as the White House Historical Association or one of the Presidential libraries.
My colleagues and I also often acknowledge how gratifying it is to learn how many other kindred spirits there are in this world. I think we knew in our hearts that there were others who loved history and documents, and sharing them as much as we do—we just never imagined how many! This program has helped to build an extraordinary community of learners, and I am thrilled that my team and I are a part of it!