Exploring Emerging America’s Windows on History Program
Since 2006, Emerging America’s Windows on History program has mobilized more than 30 research teams of K-12 students with their teachers and in partnership with historical societies, museums, town and college libraries, expert individuals, and other very local resources. Students learn to think historically as they track down primary sources to tell the story of their communities and their place in the world. This is the fourth in our series of close-ups on these sites.
The Bridgmans of Belchertown: An American Family
By Rebecca Rideout
George and Sophia were early followers of a nineteenth century health “nut,” Dr. Sylvester Graham, who preached the benefits of a natural diet similar to that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden… They only served meat on special occasions, and chicken was the only option. This was a stark contrast with most diets during this time period; the average amount of meat a person consumed in the 1830s was 178 pounds.
In order to explore their town history, students from Belchertown High School examined the Bridgman family, a clan of diverse and accomplished individuals that contributed heavily to local and international progress. The resulting project The Bridgmans of Belchertown: An American Family was made possible through the knowledgeable staff and comprehensive archives of the town’s Stone House Museum.
Teachers Lawrence O’Brien and Bob Hansbury surveyed the primary sources and planned the project with Stone House docents before presenting the curriculum to the students in their U.S. History and Massachusetts History classes. Student groups were each assigned a Bridgman family member and began investigating the archives; research tasks included interviewing docents, reading letters and archival documents, and finding the remaining buildings owned by their individual.
By and large, all of the research used for the website came from the town’s vast collection of primary sources, although one student ventured to the Umass/Amherst Microfilm Department for more information on her subject, Elijah Bridgman. Once the young historians had a clear idea of their family member’s life story, they wrote short essays for the website. The teachers organized the site by categories determined by the themes found in student research: The Civil War, Missionary Work, Commerce, Social Reform, and Politics & Government.
Nine family members were profiled on the final website; they represent a broad cross section of nineteenth century life, ranging from Civil War heroes to Chinese missionaries to local proprietors caught up in the newest health fads. The resulting student essays reveal this vast range of personalities. Some reports focus on basic facts, while others consider the person’s life story within a broader context. Teacher Lawrence O’Brien reports that if he did it again, he’d prefer to “start the process by researching and writing more extensive, traditional historical research papers.” Then he’d ask the students to edit their work into shorter web essays. “Doing that would be an effective way to teach students about the differences in writing for different modes of publishing.”
The site was created with Google Pages. Introducing the classes to simple web design principles was an unexpected advantage to the program. The project was made possible by a collaboration between the Belchertown High School Social Studies Department and the Belchertown Historical Association / Stone House Museum.
Elijah Coleman Bridgman is best known for being the first American missionary to China and for translating the Bible into Chinese… Elijah’s importance has not diminished. He is still the subject of much research today, in both the United States and China. Elijah Bridgman had a significant impact on two very different cultures.