About Me

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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Museum Review: Andrew Low House, Savannah

I've lived near Savannah for twelve years now, and so I'm a bit cynical about the city's charms. True, the historic district, with its fabulous Regency and early Victorian architecture, is remarkably beautiful, and worth a visit on that basis alone. But too much of the historical tourism in the city is pretty dire: The railroad museum, for example, is underfunded and tatty (if you've been to the California State Railroad Museum, you'll be shocked by Georgia's effort.) City tours are overpriced and frequently outrageously ill-informed: I once listened to a cocky young tour guide tell everyone in a matter-of-fact way that slavery didn't come to Savannah until after the Revolution. I wouldn't have minded his many errors quite so much if he hadn't been so boring. And the ghost tours? One of my students was a Savannah tour guide for many years, and assured me that she and a friend made up several of the best ghost stories over a few beers. I believe her.
The worst sin that Savannah has committed in my book, however, is that I and others have endured too much snottiness among the history-powers-that-be in the city. I recently made the mistake of taking a city walking tour offered by the Owens-Thomas House, on the subject of the Wanderer, the last slave ship to arrive (illegally as it happens) in America. It was led by a volunteer, it was free, and it was worth every penny I paid for it. Actually, I ought to have been paid: Disorganized, uninformed, dull, and most importantly, rude, the guide was a good example of why Savannah desperately needs better and professional public history. At the tour's end, my historian friend and I agreed that it had been a waste of time, and a terrible disappointment, especially because there is so little African-American history on show in Savannah. Another historian friend of mine encountered what she described as a very snotty tour guide at the Andrew Low House a few months ago, and so I asked her to accompany me back there today.

The Andrew Low House (1849) was built by a Scotsman who made his fortune as a cotton merchant, and then very sensibly retired on the proceeds of slave-grown cotton to the less malarial climate of England. It was in England that his son met and married Juliette Gordon Low, later the founder of the Girl Scouts, and they lived in the house periodically, although England remained their principal home. Since 1928, the house has been owned by the Colonial Dames of America, first as their HQ, and, since 1952, as a house museum.

Savannah isn't really a destination city for families, and so I usually forgive its house museums for being inattentive to kids. However, the Andrew Low House is frequently visited by one particular group of kids, Girl Scouts, because of its connection to Juliette Gordon Low.

On this particular day, only my friend and I were on the tour. The House is open in the midst of a massive restoration project which involves a few boarded-up exterior areas, but we didn't mind since we got a three dollar discount off the usual $8 tariff. Our tour guide wasn't particularly friendly, but nor was she insufferably snotty. She was fairly well-informed, but seemed a bit bored, and wasn't very encouraging of questions. In other words, she was par for the course in Savannah.

Most of the furniture was true to the period, although almost none of it was original. The tour, although it took us to both floors, wasn't too long, but included no view of the service area, or any mention of the African-Americans who staffed the place in slavery and freedom. Perhaps the stories about them don't exist. What we didn't get, however, was a better sense of the personalities who had inhabited the house: Andrew Low, the merchant, who came to Savannah as a Scottish teenager and fled it to become an English gent, was an intriguing guy.

I wondered to myself whether he left letters or diaries that might have helped us bring the house to life. The guide told us a couple of funny stories about Juliette, but only after the official tour had ended. I didn't see any evidence on the web site or in the shop that the Museum makes any effort to reach out to children, despite the fact that hundreds if not thousands of Girl Scouts are brought through the building every year. A scavenger hunt, a lively background briefing on the house and its inhabitants,or costumed character tours, all would enliven an otherwise stuffy presentation.

My historian friend described how rudely another of the docents had treated her group, including a Girl Scout whose angry mother protested. I hope that at least that experience isn't typical, but I fear that it may mark one end of a very narrow spectrum of unsatisifactory tour experiences at the Andrew Low House.

Particularly because I, admittedly, did not share my tour with Girl Scouts or any other kids, I do welcome feedback and suggestions from Low House staff or any reader who has visited within the past year, particularly Girl Scouts and their chaperones. Also, I do plan a visit to the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace soon.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Homeschooling and History

My eight-year-old son has bravely volunteered to be a guinea pig for the next year, and take advantage of my new-found freedom (I resigned from my university job this week) to become a homeschooler.
I don't actually approve of homeschooling as a first choice: Children are entitled to a life apart from their parents, and to have influences other than them. But, being a world-class hypocrite, I'm homeschooling all the same: One year, one child, and plenty of socialization time for him (work time for me) as he will remain enrolled in the afterschool program at his elementary school.
Here on the blog, I will happily share our adventures and misadventures. While Alec is not in any sense a representative sample, he does help me understand what is inspiring and what is not in history teaching for kids. Our trial run week, in which we studied the Ancient Greeks (a subject about which I knew less than he did) was not an unqualified success, but it was a good start. And it's much more fun to teach my son than to teach college freshmen.
In my next posting in this series, I'll talk about lessons learned (by me as well as Alec) and useful resources for getting started with the Greeks: How we connected past and present, and how a boy's love of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series can be parlayed into other interests. As ever, I welcome comments from readers.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Georgia Social Studies Test Fiasco, Part 2

The president of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies has issued an announcement about a hastily-proposed revision of curriculum following the disastrous results of the multiple-guess test administered to middle schoolers this spring.

Honestly, without a great deal of autonomy for classroom teachers in choosing curriculum to cover, and without essay exams (the sine qua non), I'm not sure that tweaking will work.

I always remember asking my British history teacher in the Seventies to show me the syllabus for the "O" level exams we took at age 16. With great solemnity, he pulled a chunky book off his shelf, opened it, and passed it to me. As I recall, the entire Government-created syllabus was "English history, 1066-Present." That was it.

How did this work? On the day of the exam, we all received booklets of essay questions, and we flipped through them until we reached the areas we had covered in class, then picked out three we wanted to answer. While imperfect, this system allowed teachers to teach to their strengths and interests, and for us to learn in depth, which also meant learning a passion for the subject and the critical thinking skills that come with it.

And as for periods we didn't cover? Did we remain forever ignorant? Sometimes we covered them earlier or later in our school careers...and, by the time our formal education ended, we had been equipped with the enthusiasm and knowledge to pursue whatever interested us on our own, then and later. For the record, I taught myself American history for pleasure in my mid-teens, and now have a Ph.D. in it, a subject we barely covered at school. Contrast that with my college students, who have been repeatedly force-fed broad surveys in American and World history, and arrive in my classroom without a clue or a care.

All that said, I have asked a few Georgian colleagues to work with me to create and submit our sixpence worth to the proposed revisions in the Georgia social studies curriculum. Meanwhile, here's the text of the GCSS email:

"As social studies educators, we often long for more attention to be given to our disciplines – more emphasis in the classroom, more support by administrators, and more attention by the public. Though the circumstances are not what we necessarily would have desired, social studies has certainly been “in the news” around our state for the past few weeks. Many of us were disappointed with the performance of our 6th and 7th graders on the CRCT this spring; there clearly were problems in our curriculum and our testing program that needed to be addressed.
The State Department of Education took immediate action by forming a committee of social studies teachers, supervisors, state DOE leaders, and college faculty that worked tirelessly during late May to revamp the curriculum for 6th and 7th grade. I’d like to thank these individuals for giving their time and expertise to this task. Such decisions are not easy to make and require both debate and compromise. The results of their work were presented to the Social Studies Advisory Council in early June, where further discussion took place and further changes were suggested.
In addition to the extensive changes made to the 6th and 7th grade GPS, the standards for grades 3-5 and grades 8-12 also underwent a scheduled Precision Review this spring. The proposed changes for these grade levels are relatively minor in most cases, often rephrasing or rewording standards and elements for the purpose of clarity and better alignment.
Now, here’s the exciting part for us as GCSS members! ALL of the proposed revisions that I just mentioned (grades 3 through 12) are now posted on the DOE website for public comment. This is your chance as a social studies professional to voice your opinions about the proposed changes and to help shape the state social studies curriculum. The period for public comment will continue through early August. I strongly encourage you to participate in this process! Your comments and suggestions are vital to the process of finalizing the proposed revisions before the state Board of Education votes on them in August. Go to
www.georgiastandards.org and click on Social Studies to view the revisions and submit comments."