At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, my principal approached me about teaching an elective class related to any of my interests as an educator. I drafted and submitted a proposal for a class titled “History Detectives” (no relation to the PBS show), only to find that few students signed up for it. To make a short story long, I ended up teaching Creative Writing instead (despite the glaring lack of classes on my college transcript that contain either “Creative” or “Writing” in their titles). I had a good time with Creative Writing, though, and geared up to teach it a second time. (If you’ve never heard of lipograms, you should check them out! Pretty fun stuff.)
As the second semester of the 2014-2015 school year began, my principal asked if I could resurrect the History Detectives class and take on some of the middle school students that had nowhere else to go for an elective, either because they hadn’t paid their class fees, were behavior problems for other teachers, or simply needed an elective. I quickly scrapped the Creative Writing syllabus I had planned, and resurrected my plans for History Detectives. Here is the course description:
History Detectives is a class about discovering and understanding the past the way historians do it. In this class we will be practicing the skills historians use. Students will explore history as a profession, learning what historians do, and what career opportunities are available to those who study history.
Students will learn and practice the different methods of gathering historical information, from archival research to oral history interviews and transcription; and presenting historical information, from traditional books and articles to exhibits, websites, documentaries, and e-publishing.
I divided the class into five basic units, and began reaching out to Salt Lake area libraries, archives, and other institutions to plan field trips. To my delight, the response has been very favorable. Our first field trip happened on March 3, and its emphasis on sites and repositories related to Mormon History prompted me to include it here in this series. I had three goals for the field trip: one, help the students understand what it is that professional historians do; two, give the students a sense that physical places can hold special historical meaning; and three (same goal as any field trip), avoid visits to both the emergency room and the police department.
We left our school in West Valley City, and took a short, snowy TRAX ride to downtown SLC. After a very cold walk past the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, JIers Robin J. and David G. hosted my group of 11 students at the Church History Library. Robin took the first shift, focusing on thinking like a historian using treasures from the CHL collections. He first showed the students a first edition of the Book of Mormon that had been owned by Vienna Jacques, thinking out loud with the students about the meaning that could be drawn from two inscriptions on the inside cover, one in Joseph Smith Jr.’s handwriting, and one in Jacques’s. He then shared with them an abbreviated version of the development of the Doctrine and Covenants, telling the story of Mary Elizabeth and Caroline Rollins saving pages of the unpublished Book of Commandments. He showed the students 1844 and 1876 editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, asking them to theorize why it would be important to preserve different copies of the same book. Robin explained the changes that were made between the two editions, and between them and the modern Doctrine and Covenants. He then shared with the students one of Joseph Smith Jr.’s letters to Emma from early 1839, written from the Liberty Jail and introducing the Epistle that became Sections 121-123 in the Doctrine and Covenants. Robin used it to talk about historians’ struggle to reconstruct the historical marital relationship, and pointed to significant insights about Joseph and Emma’s marriage. Concluding that my students had been truly privileged to see the primary sources they had seen, Robin counseled them to go home and tell their goldfish all about it.
David G. stepped up to the plate next, introducing the Joseph Smith Papers Project and contextualizing the decisions that he and other historians have to make when selecting documents to include in the various series that make up the project. He gave the students scans of three different versions of Joseph Smith Jr.’s 16 December 1838 Epistle, asking them to compare and contrast the versions and conclude which would be the “best” to include for publication. He explained the transcription process and strayed into talking about authenticity, provenance, and Mark Hofmann, which the kids ate up. And he concluded by having the students analyze a recent transcription he had done of a Joseph Smith Jr. letter chastising Sidney Rigdon and others by referring to the fable of the Bear and the two Travelers, David explaining that sometimes even historians need to use Google to find out information.
We took a quick photo in the hallway and bumped into Elder Snow, Church Historian and Recorder, who was delighted to see our small group visiting. We viewed the CHL’s orientation video including Joseph Millet’s story, and then headed over to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building to eat our sack lunches in the observation room overlooking Temple Square. We had a brief discussion of the history of the Hotel Utah, and then headed over to the Salt Lake Tabernacle to enjoy Andrew Unsworth’s noontime organ recital. I had given the students some instruction on Tabernacle architecture before our field trip, and they were able to see in living flesh some of the features we had discussed.
We then walked to the Beehive House and did the missionary-run tour. The sisters did a fairly decent job making it interesting for the students, pointing out the “secret” staircase to the second floor, the bracelet made of Brigham’s hair, and explaining the functions of each of the rooms. Their role as missionaries was hard for them to disguise however, and their limitations as docents were pretty obvious. The twenty-minute time limit of the tour was a little prohibitive, as well, as it would have been nice to explore some of the rooms more and examine more artifacts.
After a quick pit-stop at the Lion House Pantry, our trip concluded and we caught the train back to school. All in all, I’d say it was a successful field trip. In retrospect, I think I would like to have spent more time at the CHL walking students through the process of requesting items and using the reading room, though some of my students would have had a hard time not being disruptive to the other patrons. As a follow up activity the next time we had class, students completed a reflection on the field trip and wrote thank you letters to Robin and David.
Our next field trip will be to the University of Utah, where friend of the Juvenile Instructor Paul Reeve will have us sit in on his Utah History class, and we’ll tour the Mariott Library Special Collections and the Fort Douglas Museum. Later in the semester we will visit the USHS Research Center and the Utah State Archives.
So where would you go and what would you do, dear reader, on a Mormon Studies field trip in your neck of the woods? What questions would you ask? What would you try to get your students to understand?