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History Heroes Uncovering Diversity in the Colorado Story

"We need to have more information about different cultures in our museum because we need to remember all of history. I didn't even know that we kicked out Chinese people in Silverton. They wanted to cover up all the wrong things they did. My class and I thought that was unfair and we're doing our part to keep history alive." -Alexis
What happens when elementary students give voice to people who have been ignored by or even erased from history?
What lessons can students learn from the past in their attempts to make a better world today?

Introduction

Whitney Gaskill teaches a combined class of 4th and 5th graders in Silverton, Colorado. They are not only the only twelve students of their age group in the single K-12 school in Silverton, they are the only 4th and 5th graders in all of San Juan County. They live at 9,318 feet in a small isolated mountain town, separated from the outside world on both sides by high mountain passes. Ms. Gaskill’s class was fortunate to be selected as a Better World Project, a national initiative by EL Education to fund real world projects that have the potential to create positive change. When Silverton students learned that they had been selected, they were challenged to find lessons from Colorado's past that could provide insight in to how to have a better future and share it with their community.

Silverton School is the only school in San Juan County. This K-12 public school serves roughly seventy students.

In the Spring of 2018, my fourth and fifth grade class took a deep dive in to the world of becoming real historians. They set out to discover what had happened to diverse groups of people that contributed to our state, but were sometimes left out of the Colorado story as it is typically represented. They combined class work with an extensive week-long road trip of Colorado. The deeper they dug, the more they had to grapple with the fact that not all of history is pretty, and sometimes the most difficult parts are even covered up. They took this knowledge as a jumping off place to bring to light a little told story in our own community of Silverton, Colorado: the violent expulsion of all Chinese immigrants in 1902. After searching our local museum and archives and coming up with nothing, they decided this story needed to told. They wrote to the Colorado Historical Society, advocating for artifacts to be donated to our local museum. They rebuilt Chinese gardens in town that were previously relegated to the furthest outskirts. And they presented all their findings at a grand opening of their exhibit with a play of historical fiction. They truly became history heroes!

"We were honored to donate artifacts to this student project. I was amazed by the interest the students showed in this topic." -James Peterson, Assistant Curator of Artifacts, History Colorado Center
Students with their exhibit and project partners from the History Colorado Center and the San Juan County Historical Society Museum.
Students perform a play of historical fiction to a packed house at the Grand Opening of their exhibit on Chinese Americans at the San Juan County Historical Museum.

Enjoy a short video about the beginning of their learning adventure here:

You can see how these projects came together to contribute to a better world in the second video feature here:

Purpose

America is famous for being an amalgamation of cultures from all over the world, but in our small, isolated mountain town in Southwestern Colorado, this is not always readily apparent. Most of my twelve students have been going to school together their whole lives. Starting in January, I began teaching Colorado history. This content is an amazing opportunity to open my students’ eyes beyond our tiny town and begin to appreciate the diversity that has made our state what it is today. Not only did my students learn about various cultures, they saw the conflict, violence, and injustice that has occurred when different cultures clash. Ultimately, studying Colorado history through the lens of diversity provided my students with the understanding that learning how to live in a diverse world has been of central importance throughout history and only becomes more relevant today.

Mastery of Skills and Content

Students explored many cultures and events in our state's history but were grounded in the same questions for each activity and investigation:

Why is it important to tell history from more than one perspective?
Why is it important to keep history alive?

Five key experiences helped students to become real historians:

1) Instead of memorizing dates and facts, students used real documents to make discoveries about what happened in our state’s past. This promoted inquiry and higher level thinking and provided students with an opportunity to develop an authentic sense of what is and is not a valid source of historical information. Organically, they began to understand that stories are different depending on one’s point of view.

Students map the results of the vote on women's suffrage by county.

2) After honing their historian skills with primary source documents, students analyzed real artifacts on loan through the History Colorado Center’s Traveling Trunks program. Each trunk was filled with what families that immigrated to Colorado from Mexican, Japanese, and African-American cultures may have packed. The artifacts featured in these trunks provided opportunities for students to celebrate differences while finding commonalities among cultures. They culminated their study of the artifacts by discussing, “Are these families more similar, or more different? What matters more: their differences or similarities?” Discussing questions like this with no right or wrong answer allows students to practice articulating their own opinions, while also providing them a format where being flexible or changing their mind based on what their peers have contributed is valued. It is a way to give them skills to discuss rich topics in a civil, open-minded way.

Being able to touch real artifacts from the Traveling Trunks program brought history to life.

3) Students read historical fiction to practice perspective taking and build empathy for people and events in the past. They even got to meet Colorado author Mary Peace Finley. Her goal in writing the Santa Fe Trail Trilogy was to create a story that brought history to life and reflected the diversity of our state's past. In these books, characters from American, Mexican, and Native American cultures converge at Bent’s Fort and overcome prejudices as people outside their culture become instrumental in their lives and survival. Later in the semester, when Silverton students unearthed the untold history of the expulsion of Chinese Americans, they knew that historical fiction was a tool that could bring a story to life and build empathy.

Students discuss Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, again practicing their skills of stating opinions while listening carefully to others.

4) Students traveled the state on a week long road trip adventure. All the people and places we had been learning about in the classroom were now viewed firsthand. Not only did this bring history to life for them personally, but students were able to see all the ways people are stepping up to keep history alive around our state. They saw everything from historical sites that are reconstructed to be as accurate as possible to hobbyists making dioramas on their own time to better show what they experienced in the past. All of these exemplars gave the students ideas for what they could do in their own community that would be effective and high quality.

Our first stop, Bent's Old Fort, was a place of major cultural convergence and a trading post whose success was dependent on different cultures getting along.

5) Finally, we set our own goals to keep history alive in our community of Silverton, CO for our Better World project. Students used their mastery of historical content and skills to teach others about the Chinese immigrants in Silverton and their expulsion from the town at the turn of the 20th century.

After the road trip and a semester of study, ideas for our Better World Project were plentiful!

Character

Just as we constantly revisited the same questions throughout our learning, Social Emotional Learning goals were posted in our room throughout the entire semester. This helped students learn with their head and their heart.

I will respect cultures different than my own.
I will be open minded about different perspectives.

Students engaged in many different activities designed to develop the skills needed to grapple with tough content respectfully. Examples of activities included making personal timelines, interviewing their classmates about their culture and beliefs, turning first reactions to something new in to more respectful ones, and looking for things you do and don't agree with in a new perspective. Without these chances to tell their own stories and find similarities and differences between themselves and others, students would not have had the sensitivity or awareness to synthesize what they had learned and tell the story of the Chinese Americans respectfully.

Students work to elevate their first reactions to this book cover of a mountain man eating a moccasin. We went from "Ew!" to "He was must have really wanted to survive!"

Fieldwork- The Colorado Road Trip

The biggest key to helping students become more open-minded, culturally competent citizens is to actually get out there in the world! On our road trip, we were able to experience people and places outside of our small isolated community. Perhaps most importantly, the road trip created an authentic reason for students to practice their skills of being open-minded and respectful.

Armed with notebooks and sleeping bags, dedicated students loaded in to school Suburbans at 5:30 am. By the time the week was over, we had traveled nearly 1,000 miles!
The red shows our route and the blue circles highlight some of the key places visited along the way.

Each place we visited not only highlighted the diversity of our state's past, but also demonstrated different ways of keeping history alive. Many of the places we visited were actively falling apart or being covered up until a dedicated group did what they could to make sure that history was preserved.

We visited:

  • Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site
  • Camp Amache: Granada's WWII Japanese Relocation Center
  • Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site
  • Denver's Five Points Neighborhood, including the Black American West Museum and the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library

Visiting significant historical sites really accentuated the importance of our guiding question, “Why is it important to tell history from more than one perspective?”

For example, at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, students read various firsthand accounts on site and were able to see that some individuals misrepresented the event and their violent role in it. Students developed a clear understanding that certain parts of history have the potential to be erased and that the preservation of the true story is key to creating a more just future.

"You need to learn history from more than one perspective. Otherwise, you could get told lies." - Regina

At Camp Amache, the Granada WWII Japanese Relocation Center, not only do students get to feel what life would have been like there, they also get to see that the people responsible for keeping this history alive is a group of high school students that have opened a museum and preserved the site.

Students journal in authentically restored barracks and learn from a high school senior who is part of the Amache Preservation Society at Granada High School.

With each place we visited, we attempted to immerse ourselves in everything the region had to offer. Besides, visiting museums and historical sites, students were getting out in the field to look for artifacts or the remnants of Santa Fe Wagon tracks on a local rancher's property. They had dinner with elders who could provide personal accounts about surviving the Dust Bowl and Camp Amache.

"I believe it is important to keep history alive because you might not get to see it. What if it just disappears? Is your family going to see it? Not if you don’t keep it alive! For example, at Bent’s Fort they rebuilt it and put costumes to still make it alive." -Karely

"People have different points of view. Like Jesse Melton, he said he was happy to survive the Dust Bowl. Almost everyone else we read about was mad or sad, but he was happy because he had his family and they survived. It surprised me when he said that." -Alexis

"Jack Kimura was saying that he didn’t complain about the food or the house or anything like that. He was talking so nice about Camp Amache. That really make me wonder if what we read was wrong or if he was just having a different point of view.” -Regina

"Terry Gentry is my history hero because she is volunteering to keep history alive. So she’s not just working, she’s volunteering. She is a small part of keeping history alive, but she makes if feel like she is a big part and she makes you feel like you are a big part too." -Rylan

"We learned that all the bad stuff happens when people don't understand each other." -Carlos

We wrote letters to pen pals that we visited when we traveled around the state. Meeting new people took students out of their comfort zone socially and allowed them to see if they could be more open-minded and respectful than people we had been learning about in the past. In the midst of learning about all of these injustices, the pen pals kept the road trip fun and exciting and showed the students that they can be the ones who choose to get along with diverse people today. Some of my students even formed lasting friendships through the pen pal project.

Students met pen pals in Holly, Colorado, a rural agricultural community on Colorado's Eastern plains and from the Downtown Denver Expeditionary School in the urban heart of our state's capital.

Experts

Learning from experts placed a high demand on students. When our experts were teaching about a tough or emotional topic, it challenged my students to show a genuine sense of respect and empathy. Over the course of the semester, students heard first hand accounts from a survivor of the Dust Bowl and a from an Amache internee. They also had a chance to meet with professionals in their field, like authors, professors, and archivists.

From professors who Skyped in with expertise for our final project, to authors who brought their books to life, experts were key in raising the quality of student work.

Students' interactions with experts improved with the more experts we met. When we were preparing for our first expert visit with Regina Whiteskunk-Lopez at the Ute Indian Museum, students were asking things like, "Are we going to meet a real Indian?" Later in the semester, we arranged a Skype call with Professor William Wei, author of Asians in Colorado: A History of Persecution and Perseverance in the Centennial State to make sure that our exhibit about Chinese Americans was going to be accurate and respectful. At this point, students were asking informed questions like, "I want to know if we are allowed to display Chinese artifacts because I remember Regina saying some Ute artifacts should never be put on display." Their excitement and curiosity were focused on the fact that he had important information to share with us that would improve the quality of our exhibit, rather than the fact that he was just someone new and different.

Crafstmanship & Culminating Projects

When we returned from our road trip, it was time for the students to reflect and figure out how they could apply what they learned to make our own community better.

The conclusion of our expedition involved three main parts:

1) Use our historian skills to solve a history mystery

2) Set goals to make the world better

3) Take Action!

Because we focused so much on diversity throughout the semester, I asked my students if they could use the local cemetery to answer the question, “How diverse was Silverton in the past?” This forced students to get out in the field and try to discover information for themselves rather than have it nicely packaged up for them in a book. They discovered this stone and it kicked off our history mystery...

We looked at the local museum and archives and found no "clues" (documents or artifacts) for our history mystery...

"I did not see a lot of diversity at the museum. It was mostly mining stuff, which is cool, but we want to learn about other cultures." -Kyrsten

Through the study of old newspaper articles, students were finally able to piece together what happened to Chinese Americans in Silverton. It wasn't a pretty picture.

This article among others shows that during 1901 Chinese businesses in Silverton were boycotted, escalating to a violent mob that forced the entire Chinese population out of Silverton.

The newspaper articles tell of boycotts on Chinese businesses, with appeals declaring, "Chinese Must Go!" that escalated to an angry mob driving Silverton's entire Chinese population out of town. A later article from a nearby town accused Silverton of trying to cover this up.

"Silverton DID cover this up! That's why we couldn't find anything about it! Alex

It was time to take action! Students brainstormed all the strategies for keeping history alive they had observed on our road trip and voted on their favorite ones. Now we had some goals for our Better World project. They wanted to rebuild something, tell a story, and create an exhibit.

Students loved seeing and studying real artifacts, so we wanted to find some for our exhibit. A local expert thought she knew where we could find the sites of old Chinese gardens outside of town. We hiked there with her and it ended up being three miles. This hike gave students a very visceral experience of how extreme the exclusion and prejudice was.

Students hike with a local expert looking for where Chinese gardeners may have gardened in the past.

Unfortunately, we did not find any artifacts so we needed a new idea. Students wrote letters to the History Colorado Center, advocating that artifacts be shared with our local museum to help us tell the story. The letter writing skills that we used to reach out to our pen pals now had to be taken up a notch so that we could persuade the curator of artifacts that our project was important.

Now, we also had an idea for what we could rebuild: a garden of Chinese vegetables. Our local expert explained to us that many traditional Chinese vegetables grow very well at high elevation. Silverton residents truly missed an opportunity to learn from this immigrant group when they lived here.

"We learned that Chinese people had to have a garden far away from Silverton and we thought it was not fair, so we are making a garden with things they grew. Learning their story made us feel like we should make it fair. We are rebuilding their garden IN Silverton, that is our way to help make it fair." Karely
Staples of Chinese cuisine grow exceptionally well at high elevation. We planted carrots, bok choy, Chinese mustard, cabbage, and turnips.

We used a tool called the Riddle Scale to generate the wording for a sign. With our garden we wanted to move beyond just feeling sorry for what happened to Chinese Americans and truly appreciate the knowledge this group had that could have contributed to our community.

The Riddle Scale helped us make sure our signage wasn't just pitying, but actually appreciative of this culture. Our sign features original student art as well.

One of the most exciting moments of the semester was when we learned our request for artifacts was going to be granted. In fact, the student letters impressed the curator of artifacts so much, he decided to drive the six hours from Denver to bring the artifacts in person! Now that we knew our exhibit was going to be great, we wanted an exciting way to bring people in to the museum. We combined our love of costumes that we saw interpretive rangers wearing on fieldwork at Bent's Fort, with all the historical fiction we read, and set our sights on performing a play that could bring the story to life and our community in to the museum to see the new artifacts.

Quinn helps prepare one of our most fragile artifacts, a Chinese dulcimer, for the exhibit.
Karely memorizes lines for the play.

Students had a "grand opening" for their exhibit and play for roughly 100 community members. Their exhibit will be on display for over 10,000 museum visitors in the summer of 2018.

"This is my first time ever in this museum. I'm so excited, I want to see it all!" Cecilia Acosta, 5th Grade Parent

Conclusion

As a teacher, I was humbled to see how much my students stepped up to be part of this project and do this learning. One day of our road trip especially stands out. We had already been to two museums, played in a city park with our Denver pen pals, and it was time to interview Amache survivor, Jack Kimura over dinner. I thought they might be too tired, but they were so excited to meet him. In fact, many reflected on that evening as the highlight of their trip. They had their questions ready on index cards, they greeted him with a handshake, and listened intently with eye contact. The authenticity of the experience brought out behavior in them far beyond what you would expect from a typical fourth or fifth grader. They were so excellent because they understood how important the story this person had to tell was and they truly cared about hearing it.

Many people we met along the way were surprised by the content we were covering or the amount we were taking on. They seemed to wonder if our topics were "appropriate." However, I never felt that way when I was actually teaching my students. The work we did to develop our Social and Emotional skills was key to to tackling tough topics and having, genuine, high quality experiences with a wide diversity of people. They were given support to develop their skills in the classroom, and then trusted to use those skills out in the real world where it matters. They were able to grapple with issues that I'm sure some adults have never confronted. Students want to learn about things that have genuine significance, even if they are controversial or uncomfortable. It makes them feel that their learning matters.

Students walk away from this project with the knowledge that history can be erased if people don't step up to preserve it, and they got to be the ones to do that here in Silverton.

While history is not always pretty, these Silverton 4th and 5th graders help teach Coloradans that telling the truth of a story plants the seeds for greater understanding among cultures and a better world.

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