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

 

#Writeout: When Students Explore History Through Writing

This is a bit of time-warp sharing, I guess. Although the two-week Write Out project formally is coming to a close this weekend, this writing camp project at our local National Park Service site — the Springfield Armory — happened just before Write Out started. But I finally got a video together to share out as we sorted out media permissions of students. Write Out is a partnership from National Writing Project and the National Park Service to connect educators to park spaces for place-based writing activities.

Our free summer camp — Minds Made for Stories —  was aimed at middle school students from a social justice middle school in Springfield, Massachusetts. Funding for the camp came from Mass Humanities. Coordination of the camp involves the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, the Armory, the school system and the Veterans Education Project.

A component of this project is a series of Professional Development sessions that I facilitated with the Springfield teachers, who then helped run the camp. We are planning more PD at the Armory for the Fall as well, thanks to a grant from the National Writing Project.

We had nearly 20 students for a full week, at the Springfield Armory itself, exploring primary source material, using the museum itself as our “text,” welcoming visitors to the program to talk about women’s roles during WW2 and the Double V campaign for civil rights as well as a soldier’s life in the Civil War, and lots of different kinds of writing.

What kinds of writing?  Some of the activities …

  • Every day, they wrote into the day in notebooks, reflecting on different topics that then framed the learning and exploration of the day
  • They conducted some research on issues related to the role of the Armory in history as a source of innovation and technology and chose from different genres to share their learning
  • They designed museums of their interest as architectural drawings, imagining themselves as architects and presented their plans to the group
  • They created an advertising campaign aimed at women during World War II after learning about propaganda and the ways words and image can come together
  • They wrote about our visitors — one women helped them understand rationing during the war as well as the role of the mythical Rosie the Riveter, another was a Vietnam War vet who talked about being a black American in the armed forces and the role of the Double V Campaign to spark the Civil Rights movement, and a third was a Civil War Re-Enactor who marched our campers through the fields
  • They reflected on their learning as they wrote out of the day in their notebooks

The video captures some of the student explorations, and one of our final “publishing” events for the camp was the creation of a public display of student work that is now on the floor of the Springfield Armory museum, giving Armory visitors a look into some of the writing that students did this summer.

All this to say, while a lot of Write Out work took place outside, and in beautiful forests and mountains and streams, there are also plenty of urban landscapes and history-rich buildings to explore, too.

Peace (in time),
Kevin

#WriteOut: Mapping the Immigrant Experience at the Springfield Armory

Write Out Springfield Armory Map Photo Icon

One of the hopes for Write Out — an open learning experience now underway by National Writing Project and the National Park Service — is to use mapping as a way to surface stories, and make connections. I’ve worked with the Springfield Armory now for a few years through our Western Massachusetts Writing Project. I’ve led professional development for teachers and facilitated summer camps for inner city youths at the Armory.

What often surfaces during our dives into primary sources and themes of social justice is the immigrant worker experience, and how many of the workers during the heyday of the Armory arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, from other parts of the world, and that immigration wave changed the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts forever.

The map I created, using Google’s My Maps, is designed to visually show the country of origin of a number of Springfield Armory workers, complete with a short biography, and connections from their home countries to the Armory itself. Using primary source material, I found short bios and photographs of seventeen workers and I asked some of the other teachers and rangers involved with me at the Springfield Armory to record readings of the text.

Each pin of each immigrant worker has an image and a voice narration as a video.

What comes to visibility are the stories of these workers, with snippets of their home countries, their families here, the work they did at the Armory, and other odd facts. It’s not much but it’s enough to give a flavor of the immigrant experience, and the map makes those stories more visible than ever.

Here are all the videos, gathered together into one video:

How can maps help tell your stories? (There is a helpful guide to various maps at Write Out, if you need inspiration)

Peace (coordinate it),
Kevin

 

 

An Invitation to Write Out and Explore the Terrain

I want to invite you to join in for the upcoming Write Out project, an open learning adventure sponsored by the National Writing Project and the National Park Service and built off the concepts of the Connected Learning MOOC (CLMOOC) experiences of the past few years. I am one of the facilitators of this new experience.

Write Out is being designed to connect educators to open and public spaces, such as the National Parks network (but not limited to those places), and we will be working on mapping as a central theme this summer. We aim to have teachers and park rangers and other explorers in the mix.

The Write Out website

Write Out officially begins on July 15 and will run for two weeks. There will be invitations for making maps and making connections, for making media and writing stories, and more.

If you have five to ten minutes, we’ll have some suggestions. An hour? We’ll have suggestions. A day or two? We’ve got you covered. As with CLMOOC, you engage where it interests you, with no pressure other than a sense of connection and community.

Our aim is to open more doors for teachers, and their students, to the outside world. If you go to the Write Out site, you can sign up for newsletters and information.

Take a listen to the overview via NWP Radio from some of the facilitators:

I hope to see you in the mix this summer.

The Write Out website

Peace (inside and outside),
Kevin

PS — By the way, CLMOOC is still happening, too, in a sort of parallel and connected path as Write Out, with CLMOOC-inspired daily doodle prompts on map and open space themes, and art swap sharing activities happening. See more at the CLMOOC website.

Armory Summer Camp: The Double V Campaign for Social Justice

Lee Hines: Double V Compaign

At our summer camp at the Springfield Armory, where our themes all week have centered on social justice issues, middle school campers explored the notions of the Double V Campaign — when returning WW2 African American veterans searched for racial equality and respect, and the end to segregation, at the home-front after serving as heroes in the war.

Our visitor — Lee Hines — is part of the Veterans Education Project, and he has done extensive research on the Double V. Hines is also a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He flew airplanes and helicopters over Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. In his talk with the camp, Hines notes the ways the African American soldiers of WW2 paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement, and how the Double V Campaign sparked dissent in our country and caused government officials like FBI Director Edgar Hoover to move to squelch it.

Earlier, we had watched a powerful digital film created for National History Day by other middle school students on the topic of the Tuskegee Airmen, whose heroism is now celebrated but whose existence at the time was the cause for much argument around segregation, military service and more. Our campers come from a social justice middle school, so these topics resonated with them.

Following Hines’ talk, we had students create their own versions of a Double V Campaign poster, in hopes of getting them think about all of those brave men, and women, who fought against evil in the war and then came home, and fought against injustice in their own communities.

Double V Campaign PostersThis is the second year of our Minds Made for Stories project, which is funded by the Mass Humanities organization with support by the National Writing Project and the National Park Service. I am the head facilitator of the camp through my work with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, and our student campers all come from a social justice magnet school in our main urban center, Springfield, Massachusetts.

Peace (always ready),
Kevin