Spring 2014

Part of teaching is learning to give students the tools then need and then stepping back.

True learning happens when people feel a personal connection to something and grow to care about it. In the lead essay, a UW-Milwaukee professor follows the interests of high school students and discovers what happens. “Watching the students grow over the course of the project was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. They not only learned about local civil rights history through primary sources and oral histories, they took ownership of that history. They now see themselves as Milwaukee’s new leaders.”

 In this issue of On:

From the Director’s Desk

Should Americans understand the cultures of people across the globe? Should we speak their languages? A recent Congressional report, The Heart of the Matter: the humanities and social sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation, makes an emphatic case for American investment in formal humanities education. Foreign language proficiency is a critical need, the report argues – one of many only met by the humanities.

How do we feel about acting as effective community members and citizens at home? The humanities provide knowledge of U.S. history and the values that underpin our political system. Add to that the fact that engagement with the humanities nurtures the skills needed for a civil civic life. It’s good to hear members of Congress agreeing that the humanities speak to the heart of what matters.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council’s mission is to use the humanities to strengthen communities. We work closely with community groups, like libraries and museums, in informal educational settings as well as with teachers and kids in formal education. Some of the most exciting humanities education we’ve seen for young people in Wisconsin happens when community groups, K-12 teachers and humanities scholars work together. Jasmine Alinder’s essay in this issue of On tells of one such experience. Some other great projects for kids that, with your help, the WHC supported in 2013, include:

  • To Be! Shakespeare Here and Now Actor and Shakespeare expert Ron Scot Fry has been traveling to communities of all sizes throughout the state, offering schools and libraries a fantastic interactive introduction to Shakespeare’s language and literary work through a first-person portrayal of the Bard.
  • Heritage Days: Get Hooked on History! 201 fourth graders from four school districts, home schools and parochial schools in Price County in north central Wisconsin came to the Phillips Concrete Park where they spent a day learning about traditional Ojibwe tools and techniques, traditional Czech and Slovak music, Wisconsin’s early logging, and more.
  • The Belle of Amherst Poetry Project Workshops in Milwaukee brought literature scholars and community members together to study the poetry of Emily Dickinson and to be inspired to write their own poems. One workshop was planned in collaboration with PEARLS, a mentoring organization for at-risk girls. Another reached Girl Scouts from under-served troops.

You know what the humanities have contributed to your life, and to your community. Thank you for helping kids everywhere in Wisconsin learn what the humanities can mean to them.

Dena Wortzel | Executive Director | dwortzel@wisc.edu

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Civil Rights Leader Vel Philips with two studentsEssay: Owning the Past by Jasmine Alinder

I first became acquainted with the Wisconsin Humanities Council when I was planning events to celebrate the 40th anniversary of open housing marches in Milwaukee. I was part of a large committee made up of former civil rights activists, community leaders, and academics. With a grant from the WHC, we staged an original play, mounted an exhibition, held a day-long conference, and marched back over the 16th St. bridge, now renamed the James E. Groppi Unity Bridge for the prominent civil rights activist.

The events that weekend in 2007 sparked a new interest in the civil rights history in our own backyard—a history that seemed to be dying with the passing of those who marched down Milwaukee’s streets in 1967 and 1968. But after the weekend of remembrance, then what? Although many of the NAACP Youth Council members who participated in the marches were teens in the 1960s, upon reflection, we realized that we had not done enough in 2007 to engage Milwaukee’s youth in this history.

In 2010, I led a team of archivists, digital librarians, students, and historians who launched the March on Milwaukee Civil Rights History Project, an archive of primary sources and contextual materials. I wondered how we could use this resource to help youth learn about their city’s past and feel invested in their communities. This question led to an unlikely partnership between the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee History and Archives Departments, Arts@Large (an arts education non-profit), and a class of high school students with one very dedicated teacher.

The dozen students who undertook this project were from a school in Milwaukee for at-risk youth. Traditional approaches to learning were, by definition, not something that worked well for them. Could thinking about their community’s past engage them? Could a different kind of learning hook them?

We found out right away that the students had little background in using primary source materials. In fact, they weren’t terribly fond of history. We started by bringing them to the university campus and teaching them how to use primary sources. We directed them to certain sources, but we also gave them time to explore the text documents, oral history interviews, film footage, and photographs in the collection.

To give them a tangible goal, we challenged them to create a museum exhibit about Milwaukee’s civil rights history. Museum educator Linda D’Acquisto, author of Learning on Display, taught the students to think in terms of big questions and ideas that could translate into visual displays. Their teacher, Kelly DiGiacinto, pulled in other resources, including local museums. The students learned about redlining and other causes of segregation, and they found the oral histories of civil rights activists to be particularly compelling.

The students began to ask if they could do their own interviews with some of the former activists. Listening to recorded oral history was no longer enough; they wanted to take on the role of historian and start asking their own questions. This was a turning point in the project. The students had started to take ownership of it.

By the time some people who had been active in the late 60s visited the classroom, the students thought of them more as rock stars than relics. Students began a contest to see who could tell the history of 1960s civil rights struggles to the most people. They learned that their school principal had marched, and she began teaching them freedom songs.

The students titled their exhibition “March to Equality“. In addition to the humanities-based research and the construction of the exhibits, they wrote poetry, created collage, and gave performances that included freedom songs, marching, and skits. The students wanted to make sure that exhibit visitors knew they had done solid research, so they created QR codes leading viewers back to the primary sources on the archive website. During the exhibition opening, the kids stationed themselves at each of the displays and acted as docents.

On the morning of the exhibit opening, I happened to be giving a presentation about digital civil rights history at the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians/National Council on Public History in Milwaukee. To my surprise, the students asked if they could attend. So, at 8 o’clock in the morning, they streamed into the convention center and sat in the front row. They gave thoughtful comments during the Q&A. After the panel, they were approached by a staff member from the National Civil Rights Museum. She wanted to know how she could get high school students interested in civil rights history.

Because the students became so deeply invested in the project, they now see their city in a different way. A social studies teacher who visited the exhibit said, “The passion and knowledge that the students . . . showed was truly amazing.” The teacher goes on, “Incorporating writing, speaking, and art within the social studies project is something that I would love to do each and every unit in social studies. I want my students to be passionate about what they are learning, and I loved how the students’ teacher found a teenager’s view of the time period in order to share with her students…. I also loved how the focus on the Civil Rights Movement was based around the city of Milwaukee instead of the events that occurred in the south which most people are familiar with. The student who was my tour guide said that this experience ‘gave her pride for the city she lived in and showed her that there are people fighting for what is right instead of just the horrible, negative things you see on the news.’ I thought she captured the success of the project in those words . . .”

This was a pilot project. When we began, we had no idea if it would work. Part of teaching is learning to give students the tools they need and then stepping back. To watch the students grow over the course of the project was one of the most rewarding experiences in my career. They not only learned about local civil rights history through primary sources and oral histories, they took ownership of that history. They now see themselves as Milwaukee’s new leaders. And they have not stopped. They created and led a series of Milwaukee civil rights bus tours. This spring we are working with the Wisconsin Historical Society to engage local students in the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer (see the Freedom Summer Project). With the March on Milwaukee project, more students will now see themselves and their city in the broader context of struggles for equality, from Mississippi to Milwaukee.

Jasmine Alinder is an historian at UW-Milwaukee where she is director of the Urban Studies Program and Coordinator of Public History. Jasmine is on the board of the Wisconsin Humanities Council and chairs the WHC’s Development Committee.

An earlier version of this essay was published as “Turning Students into Historians,” Teaching History.org, January 29, 2013.

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A group of high school students on the UW Madison campus for World Languages Day

World Languages Day

Salaam! Bon jour! Hallo!

Check out the Twitter feed for World Languages Day 2013 and you’ll see excited students tweeting about drinking Chinese tea, singing French songs, and planning their future study of some of the dozens of languages taught at UW-Madison. The students from 23 high schools across Wisconsin came to campus this past November for a taste of languages and cultures ranging from Swahili to Norwegian, Latin to Urdu to Spanish. This was the second year that the event was supported by a grant from the WHC.

A Congressional report published in fall 2013, The Heart of the Matter: the humanities and social sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation, notes the critical importance of the humanities to the health of our democracy and the United States’ place in the world. One of three goals advanced by the report is to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.” It recommends improving and increasing language learning as a key strategy. From the buzz in the halls in UW-Madison’s Union South, it looks like we’ve got a lot of Wisconsin teens who are eager for that opportunity.

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Recently Funded Projects

For each dot on the map, imagine people coming together for a great humanities conversation, sharing their ideas and learning from scholars and neighbors. Every dot represents an event during the fall of 2013 made possible by a WHC grant.

What’s happening in the humanities in your community? Have an idea for a great program? Want to learn from what others are doing around the state? Check out the WHC’s new website and our blog, “Humanities Booyah.”  They’re places to learn more and to share your humanities stories.

 A map showing all WHC grants given August through November 2013


About the Photos

Ojibwe elder Wayne Valliere working with a young boy on a birchbark canoe.This photo: Youth from Lac du Flambeau and Madison’s Goodman Community Center had an incredible opportunity this past fall thanks to WHC funding. Wayne Valliere (Mino-giizhig), of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians led them in a project designed to teach Ojibwe youth the art of birchbark canoe building. Young people helped to harvest materials and, working with Mr. Valliere on the UW-Madison campus, constructed and launched the canoe in Lake Mendota. Photo by Tim Frandy.

Group of students: 2013 was the second year that teacher Julianne West brought Spanish students from Westfield High School in central Wisconsin to World Languages Day. She told the Marquette County Tribune that her school only offers Spanish, so this is a way her students learn about the great variety of languages that exist. Learning from college students is particularly fun. Photo by Julianne West.

Two students with woman (center): Students were thrilled to meet civil rights leaders like Vel Phillips as Milwaukee’s history truly came to life for them. Photo courtesy of Arts@Large.

Cover group of protestors: Arts@Large students re-enact an opening housing march.  Photo courtesy of Arts@Large.


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