What To Do When Your Classroom is Filled with Guns

Scott and Kids in front of the Organ of Muskets

Yes, my blog title was designed to be provocative. Thanks for following it here.

I am a few years into a partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project/National Writing Project and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site/National Park Service, and this topic of guns is often on my mind. The Armory, after all, as one of two main arsenals of our United States government for decades (the other was in Harper’s Ferry), is all about guns and weapons of war, and we use the Armory Museum itself as our classroom for summer camps (one just ended) and professional development courses for teachers (another one is planned for the fall.)

Reconciling the use of a building housing devices of violence with the rich history and the amazing primary sources it provides as windows on the past is one I still grapple with, although I continue to find the partnership to be fruitful and collaborative and informative at all levels. Still … guns. They’re everywhere in our learning spaces.

Here’s what we have done to try to balance or mitigate these two often conflicting ideas when we have worked with middle and high school students at our summer camp we run at the Armory itself (and also, some of these are how we work with teachers to use local history in their classrooms):

  • We focus on the engineering design and innovation of manufacturing. We don’t ignore that what was being built here at the Springfield Armory was designed for war. But we pivot to the ways that innovations at the Armory transformed our Pioneer Valley, and the entire country, as the Armory’s work influenced other elements of the United States government operations.
  • We focus on the workers — from explorations of how immigration patterns during WW2 helped the Armory expand its workforce to meet the demands of war; to the role that women played when men went off to war, and the generational impact that had in the years following the wars; to the racial divisions that often played out at the Armory as a microcosm of the United States itself.
  • We use the stories behind the weapons — either from the manufacturing side or from some of the guns on display that have been personalized by the user, with engravings of tales and years and battles, and humanize the soldier on the battlefield, not glorify the guns they held. The object as holder of stories is a powerful instrument of learning.
  • A deep look at Shays Rebellion — when farmers and former soldiers of the Revolutionary War rose up in protest over taxes and marched to the Springfield Armory with a plan to take the guns — allows us to make connections to the present ideas of community protest, and the fuzzy line between right and wrong, and acceptable and unacceptable use of force, and the role of the federal and state government in the lives of its citizens.
  • We use creative writing to push the idea of guns in the museum in other directions. For example, one prompt was to design a “gun for good” by creating a patent design, with labels and explanations, for a gun-delivery-system for something positive. Campers designed guns that sent forth ice cream, money, technology, music and, my favorite, new homes for the homeless of Springfield. Another prompt had them designing their own museums, using the Armory as a mentor text. And yet another was to design a board game about the Armory, with history as the springboard for play.

Four years into my partnership with the Armory (which began two years before I even came into the mix with other WMWP colleagues), and I still feel a bit unsettled by the weapons part of the museum. It’s an entire wing of weapons, including grenade launchers and machine guns and other advanced killing technology. Cases and cases of them, all tied to history, of course.

Manufacturing at the Armory

Even as a former soldier (infantry sergeant, National Guard) who was once trained on many of the modern weapons in the cases, I always encounter my own internal resistance to bringing young people in there. I am strongly in favor of gun control legislation and abhor the political work of the NRA to influence politicians to thwart any kind of reasonable measures to protect lives from guns.

Hopefully, by finding other ways to connect to the history of the Armory, we bring the importance of the building and the site to the surface for city kids who might not otherwise be aware. For some, the guns are what brings them to camp. This is the reality. Our job is to the show the toll of guns, and the role they played in America’s wars, but also to use them to tell the stories of the people behind them.

Peace (I mean it),
Kevin

Springfield Armory Camp: Exploration and Inquiry at a National Historic Site

We just finished up our week-long summer camp for inner city students (middle and high school) at the Springfield Armory Historic Site. It was a blast, and we wove in writing with inquiry and history and a sense of place.

We

  • explored the art of mapping as a representation of time of a place — using historical maps of the Springfield Armory site itself on a walking tour
  • learned about how to closely “read” historical images that are part of the Armory’s curated archives
  • wrote into the day every single day on a variety of prompts, ranging from designing a board game based on the Springfield Armory to seasonal poetry
  • inquired about Shay’s Rebellion with primary source materials at the Armory, the site of the uprising and the firing on Shay’s men by the militia protecting the Armory
  • heard of Pearl Harbor and the way WW2 changed the Armory and Springfield forever, and then examined how different voices (Americans, Japanese, and Japanese-Americans) told different stories of the event
  • worked to understand design and engineering with a Lock Plate Activity that replicated the experience on the Armory manufacturing lines
  • explored immigration from many different angles, including the heritage of campers and the roots of many immigrant workers at the site

Yesterday, we had more than 40 family members join our campers at the Armory, for a celebration of writing and to explore the Armory Museum with campers. It was another great year of camp, as the video diary attests to.

And because Ranger Scott Gausen could not be there for the last day, we had campers do some writing for him, and sketch out his picture. His beard is a main facial feature, as you can tell.

Ranger Scott Sketch Collage

Peace (in explorations),
Kevin

Springfield Armory Camp: The Scents and Smells of Learning

Armory Camp: Scent of HistoryOf all the senses that educators tap to help students learn something new, the sense of smell is often the one we use the least, right? Yet, scents provide deep learning experiences. Memories connected to smells are powerful, lingering long after the event. We saw that idea in action yesterday at our Springfield Armory summer camp, where a visitor who does historical demonstrations – Reba Jean — arrived with vials and bottles of smelly substances, and a quarantine sign on the door.

The theme of the day at our camp was immigration, and Reba Jean made distinct connections between migration and immigration (and emigration) and the Influenza outbreak of 1918, when millions and millions of people around the world died from the epidemic, also known as the Spanish Flu. Unless you were in Russia, then it was called the German Flu.

“Someone always wants to blame the other, the ones they don’t know or don’t like or don’t understand,” Reba Jean, who is a historical interpreter at another local history museum, explained, tying the discussion to something we had spent the morning on — the reasons behind immigration patterns and how newcomers are met at borders by those already there.

Yes, this was history — the Springfield Armory itself was a magnet for many immigrants across the globe during the World Wars because it needed workers and because potential workers wanted to help soldiers fight the wars — tied up with modern days news cycles of our southern border.

In the demonstration, Reba Jean had campers sniffing a variety of scents before telling them what it was they were smelling. All of the scents representing ways that people tried to ward off Influenza in the 1918 outbreak, which began at a military base in America and spread to the world when those soldiers were shipped off to war fronts.

Among the scents:

  • Pine oil
  • Vicks Vapor Rub
  • Camphor
  • Garlic
  • Vinegar
  • Listerine (Lister oil)

The looks on the faces of our campers — all middle and high school students from a social justice school in Springfield — was priceless as they closed their eyes to sniff out history in little cups. Reba Jean did a brilliant job of connecting the sensory experience to the topic of immigration, too.

Afterwards, I realized how little I have ever used the sense of smell in my own classroom, but how powerful it was. I could see it on the faces of campers, and afterwards, in reflection, they explained how they found the activity memorable, connecting what they discovered through their noses with historical information Reba Jean was sharing.

Peace (on the winds),
Kevin

Springfield Armory Camp: Messing Around in a Maker Space

Armory Camp: Maker Space 3D ActivityYesterday was our first day of this year’s Springfield Armory Camp – a writing partnership that was first forged years ago between the National Park Service/Springfield Armory National Historic Site, the National Writing Project/Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and Springfield Schools/Duggan Social Justice Academy.

One of our activities was to consider the reasons why Springfield was chose (along with Harper’s Ferry) for a national armory by George Washington and other military leaders, and we used excerpts from a letter by General Henry Knox that explained the rationale — the nearby Connecticut River, the abundance of lumber and timber, the local community of experienced workers and the high plains bluff that overlooks the entire region.

HenryKnoxLetterActivity

We then had our campers work in small teams to create a 3D map of the main elements of Knox’s letter, visualizing how their community was chosen so many years ago to play a crucial role in the country’s history. It was fun to watch them plan out and try to build out these maps, with glue and paper and odds and ends of things. The resulting maps then helped spur some writing and some conversation about the geography of Springfield itself.

Peace (into Day Two),
Kevin

 

History, Writing, Mapping: Planning a Summer Camp Experience

WMWP Armory Camp promo 2019

The other day, I helped gather together another team of teachers together for another year of offering a free summer camp for middle school students at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site — as part of an ongoing partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Springfield Armory and the City of Springfield school district (focused on a social justice magnet school in Springfield).

This will be my third year as main facilitator of the camp — which we call Minds Made for Stories — and the sixth year of the camp itself, which has been funded over the years through a variety of support from the National Writing Project and the National Park Service, and other local organizations. This year, with no grants and with worries that there might be no camp, the Duggan Middle School in Springfield and the Springfield Armory itself stepped up to fund the work, and I am very grateful.

WMWP and Springfield Armory

The week-long camp takes place at the end of June at the Armory itself, and each year, we change the themes of the experience for the participants. We also have new folks from the middle school involved, as a way to provide more professional development to more teachers.

This year, we are using “Seasons and Maps” as our hook, with each day focused on a season and a historical theme (such as Autumn: Pearl Harbor and Winter: Shays Rebellion), while we work different kinds of mapping activities through the week to visualize history (such as mapping out the immigrant journeys to Springfield during the heydays of the Armory as the main manufacturing center for the US government). Our goal is to publish a Zine of student work at the end of camp.

At our planning session, we did our own mapping — charting out each day’s main events along themes, taking on responsibilities, tasking each of us with some different elements, and after two hours, the camp really took shape.

Now I just need to get through the school year (3 1/2 weeks left!) and then it is right into summer camp.

Peace (in planning),
Kevin

 

When Your Classroom is a National Historic Site

We just wrapped up a professional development partnership between the Springfield Armory Historic Site and the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. I was one of the lead facilitators, and it was such a great experience to use the Armory itself as our classroom as a way to explore history and primary sources. The course was supported through a grant by the National Writing Project and the National Park Service.

After all the participants shared lesson plans and resources and topics — ranging from the role of light rail transportation at the Armory, to the use of the Organ of Muskets poem that was inspired by a visit to the Armory by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to use of The Things They Carried to invite a veteran oral historian into the classroom, to deep research into local history of a community — we asked the teachers to write a reflection. Part of what we are doing is gathering resources for a future website to showcase the potential of exploring local history.

Peace (and thinking),
Kevin

Video Interview: A Student’s Perspective on Project-based Learning

At the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, our site is working with a local school district on implementing the design of Project-Based Learning (something my WMWP colleagues have already done in another school district.). I am not directly involved in that work but I am facilitating a Professional Learning Community in my own school district on Project-Based Learning.

So when our WMWP UMass intern Grace Dugan sat down to share her experiences in high school at a charter school based on the PBL philosophy, I was grateful to have an ear open (and I helped edit the video). I appreciated how Grace talked about her experiences, and how the inquiry model really shaped how she approaches learning and PBL has a resonance effect.

Peace (more than a project),
Kevin

Innovation, Design and History (plus Multi-Genre Writing with Primary Sources)

Innovation and History PD at Armory

Our second professional development session of Exploring HIstory with a Local Lens with teachers at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site last night focused mostly on engineering design and innovation, with a deep look at some of the designs in the Armory archives that worked, and those that did not. (This project, a partnership between Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Springfield Armory, is funded with a grant from the National Writing Project and the National Park Service.)

We were pleased to have the Springfield Armory Curator, Alex, join us, sharing his vast knowledge of the Armory’s history and an understanding of how the engineering design process fueled not only the Springfield Armory’s place in the field of manufacturing and innovation in the country, but how other businesses and innovators in Western Massachusetts grew and expanded as a result of the work being done in Springfield.

Alex showed us a variety of prototypes, and like a detective game, we had to figure out why a design worked and was further developed, and which were not. A coffee grinder in the stock of the rifle? A sword with an embedded whistle? A gun with revolving chamber that might blow up at any moment?

Ranger Scott and the 3D Printer

Armory Ranger Scott Gausen, a fellow facilitator in the course, then had us exploring patent diagrams in a lesson about interpreting engineering drawings, and determining the notion of a patent. We then worked on our patent drawing for a flying machine. Mine became a Rube Goldberg machine that you probably should not build at home.

How to Fly (but don't)

Scott then brought us down to the museum floor, where he made a connection between the innovation practices of old and the new, as he had a 3D printing machine up and running, working on a plastic part that the huge lathes behind the printer used to make.

Finally, after perusing and exploring our state’s new Social Studies standards, I had our participants exploring multi-genre writing through the use of primary sources of Shays Rebellion, which was a farmer’s uprising and assault on the Springfield Armory after the Revolutionary War. We made black-out poems, drew illustrations, wrote journal entries, made newspaper/media products, and I joined in with a rough comic, featuring George Washington and Daniel Shays.

Shays Rebellion Comic Strip

All in all, it was a great professional development session, leading us deeper into the notions of history, stories and innovation. We meet again in January as participants start to fine-tune their project ideas.

Peace (in the past),
Kevin

We’re In This Room Together

At our recent Western Massachusetts Writing Project conference, the keynote speaker was educator Kelly Norris, whose new book — Too White — explores her identity and her story through the lens of race, bias, empathy and social justice.

Here, she reads some of her recently published book:

Interestingly, during the Q&A period, Kelly responded to a question about addressing difficult issues like these while working in a relatively insular school community, and Kelly mentioned how difficult a role that can be. Particularly, she noted, when she always seems like “that person in the room” who raises questions and challenges assumptions and bias.

Then, while watching the video archive of a Studio Visit for the Equity Unbound course, I heard the same phrase by some of the guests, noting that they often feel like “that person in the room” and put on the spot.

Which led to a comic. We’re in the room together.

Spark change

Peace (and understanding),
Kevin