For many people, Shenandoah National Park is a great place to hike, camp, bike, and explore. But now, Albemarle’s middle and high schoolers will have a chance to see a different side of the park, and dig deeper into its creation. What happened to the people who once lived there? What are their stories? Can we feel those ghosts in the park today?
Thanks to a $50,000 grant from the National Geographic Society, Albemarle County Public Schools is launching a new social studies project, combining field experiences with geographic inquiry and geospatial technology.
Students will conduct what project leader Chris Bunin calls an “above-ground archeology dig” using high-tech radar at several local historical sites, including the Downtown Mall, Montpelier, and the University of Virginia. They’ll start by thinking of a geographic question for a particular site, focusing on the different perspectives and experiences people have had there over time, based on their race, class, gender, and other parts of their identity.
“When you take some of our cultural iconic places, and even simpler places, in our community, depending on the eye of the beholder…that space and place means something differently,” says Bunin, who teaches geography at Albemarle High. For example, “when some students come to school, they feel very safe and see a place of learning. Other times, people see a place that’s very powerful and uncomfortable.”
“More people need to be able to access those viewpoints, so we can have rational conversations about what’s going on, or what we’re trying to do to improve our community,” he adds, pointing to critical aspects of local history—like slavery and urban renewal—whose harmful effects can still be seen and felt today.
In addition to visiting sites, students will answer their questions using primary resources, including photographs, property sales, interviews, old maps, and texts.
“We want students to see themselves in their community, see their perspective in their community, and see themselves as contributors to that narrative,” says Monticello High School geography teacher John Skelton, who’ll also be working on the project. “And if those stories have not been shown, they can show them.”
With the help of geospatial technology, students will share their data and analyses in the form of an interactive story map of their historical site. Users will be able to click on different icons on the map, and discover video and oral histories, pictures from the past and present, and excerpts from historical documents. Members of the community will be able to interact with these maps first-hand at two public showcases. As the project expands and evolves, library media specialist Mae Craddock envisions students being able to create augmented reality walking tours.
“We’re thinking about cultural geography, not just as a slice in a single time, but rather a slice across time,” says Craddock, who will be leading the middle school portion of the project at Murray Community School.
Bunin and his colleagues came up with the idea for the project while discussing their field experiences with each other last year. With the help of Craddock and Skelton, as well as Murray lead teacher Julie Stavitski and Albemarle High learning technology integrator Adam Seipel, he designed and submitted a grant to National Geographic, called “Revisiting Charlottesville.”
With classes online this fall, the project is a rare opportunity to get students away from their screens. Kids will be asked to research and analyze their own homes and neighborhoods, and think about how they perceive these spaces and how they have evolved over time.
“They’ll take some 360 [degree] photos, use Google Maps to create tours, record audio, and [do] some interviews,” Craddock says. “They’ll really think about their own environment, before we head out to the city at large.”
Bunin hopes students will not only develop a new understanding and appreciation for local history, but have an opportunity to “fix” it in the present day, pointing to a past field excursion he did with some colleagues to a World War II cemetery. A teacher assigned to research a particular soldier buried there discovered that his tombstone was misspelled, and was able to get it corrected.
“The vision for us is that we’re going to have these things happen with us too,” Bunin says. “Things that are just not on the surface, that no one knows about and are hidden in the stacks somewhere—[they’re] going to be recovered or uncovered, so that our community now has [them].”