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Evaluating…The Key to Excellent Programs

Right from the start, evaluation played a key role in developing Discovering Local History, a collaborative project of the Webb- Deane-Stevens Museum and the public schools of Wethersfield, Connecticut. Classroom teachers, local journalists and historians, and museum staff worked in an on-going partnership to shape a successful local history program for the community’s elementary, middle, and high school students.

By the time of the American Revolution, Wethersfield was a thriving commercial center, home to wealthy merchants and a citizenry strongly supportive of the revolutionary cause. Generations of Wethersfield citizens embraced the community’s history and, beginning in 1914, sought to preserve the historic nature of the village. Today, Old Wethersfield constitutes the largest historic district in Connecticut with 200 buildings dating before 1850. Located at the heart of the district is the Webb- Deane-Stevens Museum.

Discovering Local History was designed to introduce Wethersfield social studies teachers to the use of primary source materials and to the wealth of local historical and archival resources; to develop instructional materials and corresponding teacher manuals for use in conjunction with classroom instruction and visits to local historical sites; and to become an integral part of both social studies and art curricula in grades three, five, and eight, and the American history and Wethersfield Studies courses in grades ten, eleven, and twelve.

Evaluation and Program Development

Throughout the project, evaluation helped shape and refine Discovering Local History. Classroom teachers were involved in writing the curriculum. They selected and evaluated the materials and activities that would be incorporated into their classrooms. The museum staff acted as a resource, proving background materials for teachers and students as the curriculum evolved. They answered questions, conducted tours of the houses for teachers, provided methods for studying artifacts, and provided appropriate primary documents. The result was that the teachers felt ownership of the curriculum and were very enthusiastic about it, the key to successful translation to students.

In addition, the resources of the community were used as much as possible. The local press was invited to participate in the field trips and word soon spread that Wethersfield students were exploring their history. This hit a responsive chord in a community proud of its history. Members of the community came forward to donate books and pictures, speak to the students to share personal experiences, and to help the students begin an archive of oral history projects.

Today, as the project continues to develop, teachers evaluate each aspect of the program. After each field trip, teachers are provided with an evaluation form to respond to specific aspects of the program. It is crucial to the successful evolution of the program for museum staff to respond constantly to evaluation in order to ensure growth and vitality and to instill confidence, respect, and cooperation between participating institutions. Also, the museum director and director of education attend school staff meetings, provide material of interest to the classroom teachers, organize a parent/student open house at the museum where student art projects are displayed, and offer opportunities for continued professional development for the teachers.

A bi-annual newsletter from the museum to the Discovering Local History teachers also serves as an evaluative instrument. It offers opportunities for teachers from the various schools to share successes and serves as an incubator for new ideas for the project.

Elementary Level Activities

In its current form Discovering Local History begins in the third grade with programs about colonial decorative arts, architecture, foodways, and textiles. Third grade teachers have developed the Wethersfield history component of the social studies curriculum. The teachers and museum educators have produced thirty lessons on local history that include the natural environment, native people, early European settlers, and daily life in the colonial era. The lessons are presented in the school classroom, the art room, and on location at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum and other sites in Old Wethersfield.

The third grade component contains hands-on activities such as carding, spinning, and weaving wool in the textile lesson; sculpting a clay model of the ball and claw foot of a Chippendale chair in the decorative arts lessons; and constructing cardboard models of gable and gambrel-roofed houses in the architecture lessons. The primary document in the third grade is a probate inventory, modified for third graders and used to classify and research items associated with tasks of daily life.

For the fifth grade, the Webb- Deane-Stevens Museum created a tour of the Buttolph-Williams House to emphasize the historical setting of the Elizabeth George Speare novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Also, tours of the Webb House, the Wethersfield meeting house, and the Ancient Burying Ground were developed to highlight certain themes of the James Collier novel My Brother Sam is Dead. Fifth grade teachers created a series of lessons to use with the two novels as part of a literature-based social studies curriculum spanning the colonial and revolutionary periods. The fifth grade programs use both objects and documents, including portraits, political cartoons, tavern signs, gravestones, and newspapers, as well as historic buildings and landscapes. Especially important is the use of personal letters that engage students’ attention and emotions as they study people and events of their town.

For the art curriculum, elementary art instructors created several projects to complement and reinforce classroom social studies activities. For example, student art projects include dyeing, painting tavern signs, creating and decorating menus from the taverns, and drawing colonial architecture. Art instruction and the resulting student projects provide a critical dimension to students’ understanding of Wethersfield history.

Secondary Level Activities

Plans are underway for the middle school component, and an elective option is available for grades ten, eleven, and twelve. At the secondary level, Discovering Local History materials developed jointly by high school and museum staff are used in the Wethersfield Studies course, a popular high school elective. This is an interdisciplinary course based on literature and integrated components of social studies, English, and art. On-location classes include architectural walking tours, house tours, thematic burying ground programs, and hands-on activities such as weaving.

With the program well underway, the museum’s and the Wethersfield Public Schools’ strong commitment to Discovering Local History continues to be a factor in its success. Well-established lines of communication based on formal and informal evaluation provide the basis for the ongoing development of the program. The project is a source of pride for the museum, the schools, and the community.

Gail Potter is Director and Phyllis Greenberg is Director of Education at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Both have had teaching experience in public schools prior to their careers at the museum. This article is based on their presentation at the Annual Conference of the American Association for State and Local History in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1996.

Potter, Gail and Phyllis Greenberg. “Evaluating…The Key to Excellent Programs,” The Docent Educator 6.4 (Summer 1997): 8-9.

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