Activating Curiosity: Oregon Historical Society K–12 Curriculum

April 6, 2021

By Sarah Anderson

The first image visitors see when entering the “Experience Oregon” exhibit is this mural — composed of images held in OHS’s research library collections — of the people who represent the vast places and events that have shaped Oregon. Their experiences and stories unfold throughout the exhibit as well as in the “Experience Oregon” curriculum designed to accompany the exhibit. The curriculum was a collaborative, shared-authority project by Sarah Anderson, David Martinez, OHS staff, and an advisory board. Image created by The Design Minds for the Oregon Historical Society’s “Experience Oregon” exhibition.

As an educator and author who specializes in place-based education, I believe students learn best when they’re given the opportunity to explore primary sources. In recent years, I have written lesson plans for teaching Portland’s Black history through primary resources, “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs,” and I have had the opportunity to work with Oregon Historical Society (OHS) staff on developing curriculum for two exhibitions: Experience Oregon, OHS’s 7,000-square-foot permanent exhibit, and Nevertheless, They Persisted: Women’s Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment. This engaging inquiry-based and object-based curriculum for teachers in grades K–12 is one way OHS provides educational access to its exhibitions, especially during the COVID-19 global pandemic, when social distancing efforts have prevented students from visiting in person.

OHS’s education department reached out recently to ask me to share some of the processes involved in writing curriculum as well as what inspires me to do this work. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Why did you want to write these curricula — “Experience Oregon,” “Nevertheless, They Persisted,” and “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs”?

As a young person, I never learned history by investigating primary sources. My first experience using primary sources for historical detection was in graduate school, and that process was honestly thrilling. I am so excited by lessons that encourage students to construct their own understanding, instead of having the instructor feed them the information. I believe that one of the ways we can increase student engagement is to stop telling them history and instead activate their curiosity and challenge them to develop their own theories. In other words, doing history. For example, I encourage educators try a simple exercise of first introducing a historical photograph to their students without a caption or any details about its context. Encourage students to observe, wonder, infer, and work together to construct meaning before revealing the caption. 

I have always had a passion for local history because of its relevance in the lives of students and how it offers opportunities for history in action. I really want students to get excited, too! My greatest hope is that one of my lessons will spark curiosity and enthusiasm in them — as well as in their teachers!

Child wearing a hat and riding a tricycle in about 1885. OHS Research Library, OrHi 72983
The Kindergarten unit of the “Experience Oregon” curriculum introduces students to primary sources by having them examine and evaluate photographs from OHS’s collections. In the second lesson plan, students consider how children from the past are similar and different from them by drawing one detail from an exhibit photo, such as this one, on their observation sheet. The unit culminates with the creation of a classroom exhibit where students share their own personal artifacts. OHS Research Library, OrHi 72983.

Another primary motivator for writing local history curriculum is the need for a more accurate story of Oregon’s past. Between middle and high school, I personally had four years of Western European history and one year of U.S. history. I didn’t even learn about the civil rights movement until I was in college. Some educators now share a more dynamic and inclusive history of America; however, this work is often taken on by individual teachers, and not by schools or districts. When curriculum writers include diverse perspectives, they provide opportunities for students to see themselves in the story of Oregon and find inspiration from the struggles and successes of past generations to make change in the future.

What is your research process? You didn’t have a background in woman-suffrage history, for example, so how did you learn?

“Oregonian,” October 21, 1912, 10
In one of three foundational lessons for the “Nevertheless, They Persisted” curriculum, students examine primary documents to construct a timeline of Oregon suffrage within the regional and national context. One of the documents is this 1912 editorial cartoon that shows an Oregon man observing husbands and wives happily together in the surrounding states, which is meant to represent how Oregon voting men were slow in passing suffrage compared to their neighbors. “Oregonian,” October 21, 1912, p. 10

One of the most enjoyable parts of writing history curriculum is that I get to be a student, too! Before I think about creating lessons, I give myself a period of time to read articles, listen to interviews, watch videos, interview historians, examine primary sources, and absorb as much information as possible. Within this process, I start to notice pieces of the story that stick out as most essential to a particular narrative and to larger themes in American history. Both are important. For example, it is notable that Oregon was one of the first states in the country where women won the vote but also one of the last states in the West. Investigating that fact reveals essential knowledge about Oregon history. At the same time, themes of protest and grassroots organizing within the Oregon woman suffrage movement connect to a larger history of American civil rights movements and how people have fought to gain rights of citizenship.

When considering potential content and skills for lessons, I ask myself: “Why do students need to know this? How does this story or theme impact their life and their future?” And then I ask myself: “What would make them want to learn more?”

I also focus on making sure I know as much as I can about each topic to help educators and students develop their understanding. I then ask: What do students and educators need in order to access this essential understanding? What sequencing do they need? What additional resources? I want to make it as easy as possible for educators to use a lesson in their classroom and have that lesson be as engaging as possible for students.

You work in a collaborative manner, reaching out to other teachers as well as historians and other colleagues for ideas, feedback, and information. Tell us some about that process, what it entails and why you work that way.

Curriculum writing is a collaborative process, just like being a teacher or a historian. I am certainly not a content expert, and there are so many teachers out there doing creative, innovative things in their classrooms every day. The first thing I do is learn. I also investigate other available lesson plans and curriculum to make sure I do not repeat something already available. It gives me an idea of where there are holes in the resources available to educators, where I can build on existing material, and where I could create something to fill in gaps.

Sometimes I know I have a great idea from the beginning, and other times, it takes a while to tease out the “hook” or the heart of the lesson. That’s when it helps to call on other educators for feedback and brainstorming. It sounds pretty nerdy to want to meet up in a coffee shop and brainstorm lesson plans, but I’ve definitely done it many times — and I love it! Lessons that we hope will be used in a range of classrooms should not be created in isolation. I could never do this alone — and shouldn’t. I highly value collaboration with the educators, historians, and other community partners who have helped me along the way. 

Mary Jane Holmes Shipley, daughter of Robin and Polly Holmes. OHS Research Library, Mss 2854, box 1, folder 1
The high school unit of the “Experience Oregon” curriculum enables students to analyze the history of how Oregonians have enacted policies and law. Through the unit’s first lesson, students explore how ideas become law and how laws are implemented through court cases, using specific examples from Oregon history such as the “Holmes v. Ford” case. Mary Jane Holmes Shipley, pictured here, was one of the children who were freed from slavery when her father, Robin Holmes, sued his former enslaver, Nathaniel Ford. OHS Research Library, Mss 2854, box 1, folder 1.

You have also conducted workshops about all the curriculum you have created. What have you learned from those workshops? How do you prepare for them? What’s different about teaching adults and youth?

What’s different about teaching adults compared with youth? Not much! One of the mistakes that workshop leaders can make is assuming that their adult students don’t need to be engaged in the same way that youth do. In fact, leading adult workshops is a perfect time to model engaging, hands-on teaching practices so that the participants can experience what it’s like to be the student. I love examining primary sources with other educators and sharing questions and theories we have about different documents — it’s so much fun!

One thing that I’ve learned is to never assume anything and always be open to discovery. Many educators and other adults may have a lot of background knowledge about U.S. history, but very little knowledge of local history. There are foundational understandings about early Oregon history, for example, that provide better context for events that came after, including current events. I always try to work that into my workshops. And sometimes there will be a workshop participant who is themselves an invaluable source who can share experiences and stories relating to local history. In those cases, I just need to get out of the way and make a space where we can all listen and learn. 

How do you think about incorporating the changing materials and standards (Tribal History/Shared History and Ethnic Studies, for example), and how do you bring your trainings in equity and anti-racism to the work of writing curriculum?

“Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs: The Black History of Portland, Oregon,” by educators Lisa Colombo and Sarah Anderson in collaboration with community members.
The “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs” curriculum brings the civil rights movement — primarily confined to the South — to Portland. By “doing” history, either through a museum visit or these lesson plans, and learning about local history, students connect the past to the present in ways that enable them to better understand their communities, societal inequities, and activism and to gain a more complete version of the Portland they experience every day.

My personal work learning about anti-racism and anti-racist education has only highlighted for me how essential the work is for all educators. In the “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs curriculum,” the first several lessons involve establishing norms for meaningful conversations, including creating agreements for group discussions, establishing common definitions for words such as “racism” and “discrimination,” and making identity charts. We also include tools and suggestions for educators to do their own work before and while leading the lessons. This work requires self-reflection and developing an awareness of our own biases. Establishing relationships with other educators who are also doing this work and can offer support is also essential.

I am not an expert in anti-racist education; I continually learn from the wisdom of leaning into discomfort, being willing to make mistakes, and being willing to fix them. As I meet educators and mentors with diverse experiences, from diverse backgrounds, I look forward to continuing to learn and grow. Like I said, one of the best parts of this work is that I am forever the student!

You can learn more about the curriculum highlighted in this blog post on OHS’s Experience Oregon and Nevertheless, They Persisted curriculum webpages and on the Cottonwood School’s Civil Rights, Civil Wrongs curriculum webpage. Educators and students will also find a number of additional resources, including online exhibits and curriculum, on OHS’s Exhibit Information: Curriculum and Resources.

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