This was the third year that Archives and Special Collections has participated in “I’m Going to College,” a day of classes and workshops for fifth and sixth graders held at UAA to give them a taste of what college is like. Mariecris Gatlabayan had taught our portion of the workshops in 2009 and 2010, but I took over this year to channel the ghost of my former career as a teacher.
This year, I worked with two awesome groups of sixth graders: Team Arctic Fox from Clark Middle School and Team Harbor Seal from Fairview Elementary. I say “awesome” because they all arrived hot and sweaty after a 10-minute trek from all the way across campus, and yet they were still engaged, active, and enthusiastic participants!
The first thing we did was have a group discussion about what an “archives” was. I showed them pictures of different things we had in the archives and asked them to identify them. They all easily picked out the movie reel, “old letters,” and photographs but had a little trouble identifying the diary. (One of the students identified it as “paper with writing on it” — and I had to give him credit for it, since that was technically correct!) We briefly talked about why these things help us understand history, especially the history of Alaska.
Then we moved on to the main exercise. I broke each group up into six teams. Each team got a worksheet with three questions on it: “What do you observe?” “What do you think you see?” “What do you want to know?” Then I showed them two photographs, and each team competed to write down as many observations, assumptions, conclusions, and questions about the photographs as possible. There was a lot of friendly competition here, and I was thrilled with how worked up they got trying to beat each other with observations about the photos.
The two photographs I chose were ones that Mariecris had used in the past two years of “I’m Going to College,” photographs taken by O.C. and Ruth Connelly, a husband and wife who were schoolteachers at the village of Savoonga on Saint Lawrence Island from 1938-1940. They’re great photos because they have a lot going on in them without giving away where and why they were taken, and the kids seem to relate to them because they depict kids their age at school. The first photograph (at left) was of three girls in front of the schoolhouse at Savoonga, and the second photo showed a boy packing Arctic fox furs into sacks inside a classroom in the school. Once time was up, I asked each group to present one observation, one conclusion, and one question they had about each photo. Most of the students correctly identified that the images had been taken at a school, that the photos were from the early twentieth century, and that they depicted Alaska Native children. They were stymied, though, by the photo of the fur-packing; they wanted to know why the kids appeared to be making pillows in the classroom. A lot of great questions got asked, like “What were the names of the girls?” and “Why do they have beads in their hair?” and “What does the writing on the chalkboard say?” We spent the last few minutes of class talking about what kinds of other sources they would use in the library to figure out the answers to these questions (and I was personally gratified that not all of these answers started with “Google”). Then I did the big “reveal” and told them when and where the photos had been taken. Team Arctic Fox thought it was especially cool that the second photo showed their namesakes.
This exercise is a great way for students to learn to dissect a photograph for its historical significance. However, because of time constraints, I had to cut out another exercise that might have been even more fun: a team competition to put pieces of a photograph back together that I had cut up like a puzzle. Once completed, the photo would have shown a view of the Park Strip in downtown Anchorage on March 28th, 1964. What’s significant about that date? It was the day after the great Alaskan earthquake hit south-central Alaska and devastated much of the western side of the city, and the photo, an aerial view taken by pilot Frank C. Fox, shows buildings along the park strip sinking into a fault line.
I ended the workshop by taking a photo of Team Harbor Seal to “put in our archives,” like the photos they’d worked with. Team Arctic Fox ran out too quickly (they are foxes after all!) for me to capture them on film. Congratulations to both teams for a great workshop and competition! We hope we’ll be seeing all of these students in the Archives in the years to come.