West Tisbury students take a trip to the past

MV Museum education director Nancy Cole helped the students learn about the Island's past. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Young students at the West Tisbury school are enjoying a virtual trip to the past thanks to an ongoing Martha’s Vineyard Museum education program that connects young students with the Island’s history.

Through pictures, artifacts, documents, maps, and oral histories, the school’s three multi-age classes (first and second graders) are participating in a project, “Martha’s Vineyard Now and Then,” that explores what life was like on the Vineyard a century ago.

“We want to share the collection and help kids learn about Martha’s Vineyard’s past and understand how we know about history,” museum education director Nancy Cole said. “This allows kids to look at non-fiction materials and use them and analyze them. Little kids really relate to concrete evidence.”

The museum has educational programs in all of the Island’s primary and secondary schools. The Martha’s Vineyard Now and Then project was initiated during the current school year and is expected to be offered in subsequent years, and in other local schools.

The program features themed sections on different aspects of life in the past; each section runs from four to six weeks. Two or three times a month, Ms. Cole either visits the classrooms, or hosts the kids at the museum or at sites of historic interest.

During a recent lesson at the school, Ms. Cole brought in photos of school kids and the exterior of schoolhouses from the beginning of the last century. The kids were asked to identify the differences in the pictures from their school setting today. “What in the picture might tell you it’s from the past?” was the question Ms. Cole posed to the students as she held up a series of old photos.

After gathering in small groups to examine the pictures and identify elements that established their antiquity, the kids assembled as a group and went over some of their observations. Ms. Cole then asked the children to pose their own questions about the kids in the photos. “I wonder if they had computers” and “Did they take the bus to school?” were among things the kids were curious about.

The current section on schools is the third subject to make up the year-round curriculum. Previously the West Tisbury first- and second-graders looked at lighthouses and homes. Next they will focus on work, examining some of the jobs that have changed dramatically like farming and shopkeeping, and others that are now obsolete like manual brickmaking and ice cutting.

“We’re trying to get the kids to use primary source material — photos, objects, oral histories, documents, maps,” Ms. Cole said. “We want them to understand what a primary source is and how to use them to learn about the past.”

Multi-age teacher Lauren Serpa said, “They’re learning history hands on. It’s alive. It’s ongoing. It’s a whole different experience when they can relate to it. There’s no other way you could have such a full understanding of history. For them to preserve it they have to understand it.”

A team of former educators, including West Tisbury School curriculum consultant Elaine Barnett, helped Ms. Cole chose material from the museum’s collection and, along with the teachers, plan the themes and lessons.

The three multi-age teachers — Ms. Serpa, Kristy Fletcher, and Michele Mayhew — are using the lessons to teach more than just history. They have found ways to integrate other areas of learning into the museum program.

“We’re teaching them about Martha’s Vineyard history but at the same time making sure we’re meeting state standards by covering certain areas,” said Ms. Serpa. Storytelling and non-fiction writing have been tied in to the lessons, and the kids generally complete some sort of project, such as a scrapbook, journal, or mural, based on the themes.

During the first thematic section, which was completed last fall, the kids visited all of the Island lighthouses and the Fresnel lens exhibit at the museum. They also listened to oral histories and read from an early log book kept by the Cape Poge lighthouse keeper. One of the classes created a video that tells the story of the 1872 wreck of the White Swan based on log entries. The kids illustrated and narrated the story and posted it on a video-sharing website

The second section on homes included a trip to the museum where kids were shown a number of archaic household objects. These included a carpet beater, a washboard, a crank telephone and an early electric toaster. They were asked to try to identify the items. When presented with a chamber pot the guesses ranged from a huge mug to a soup tureen. A gramophone left the kids amazed that such an instrument could play music. One boy referred to an LP record as a giant CD. “They rediscovered what the purpose was and why we don’t use it anymore and what’s replaced it.” said Ms. Serpa.

Oral histories play a big part in the lessons. The kids have listened to older Vineyarders share stories about home life, farming and life as a lighthouse keeper’s son. “The best way to learn is through stories,” said Ms. Serpa. “Hearing oral histories and looking at artifacts gives a new meaning to history.

To learn history by listening and seeing it is really different from leaning from a textbook.”

Ms. Fletcher said, “The kids are so excited, especially when they can compare how it was back then to their lives now. It just adds a little extra to the teaching.”

After the initial lesson on schools, the kids commented on the experience. “I like hearing about all different types of schools and all about the kids then,” Sydney Marcus said.

“I’m learning about stuff from the past and learning about Martha’s Vineyard,” said Ianna Olivera, “It’s easier to see the real live picture.”

The program is proving to be a win-win, for both the school and the museum. “We want kids to get excited at school and bring their parents,” said Ms. Cole, “That happens.”