Some days, I need to trigger my students’ emotions. They won’t learn if I don’t. Their eyes roam the classroom rather than settling on a thought, and their brains are scrambled. The right emotion will bring them back into the conversation and will even persuade them to lead that conversation.
A friend gave me a pocket diary years ago.
This is one of the objects I use when I need to get students involved again, when they drift off. It’s an 1859 diary from Boston, so it’s perfect. The US before the Civil War. So many people have opinions about that. They think about big picture and argue about the precise role slavery played in the conflict. Very few of them have encountered the lives of ordinary people from that time.
I don’t explain those lives. I let them find pages in the diary and think about who the person was who wrote that entry. Instantly, they find the knowledge they want and connect to the class, or they find that they don’t know enough and that they’re hungry to find out who wrote short notes that hint far more than they say and why whole months of the diary are unwritten.
I just opened the diary, randomly, and suddenly it’s a Wednesday. February 9, 1859 was a Wednesday. It was also, “Misty, damp weather began to rain and rain.” I wouldn’t mind that summer day. Here it’s spring and sunny and we have smoke in the air due to the burn-offs. Except that my mind tricked me. Diaries look close to home, but they’re not. My mind instantly translated February into the hottest part of the year, but that mist and incessant rain was in winter. All my Australian students would have had to make the same mental translation as I just did.
The right diary entries don’t leave room for doubt. This makes this tiny volume useful for another part of writing. While I had to stop for a brief second to remember (Those strange people have their seasons upside down” when the diarist wrote of that incessant rain, on 10 of February says, “Colder, with snow squalls.” This, in a novel, would tell everyone instantly that the scene was a winter one, where the rainy day would not.
Students handle the diary and they read entries and think those entries through, then they ask questions.
The diary and those questions create the bridge that lets them explore the past safely. The diary is more than a part of a bridge into history, however. It can also be an object that gives a person confidence. “I know diaries, I can understand this.” Or it can be a memory for someone about their own pocket diary from a special year and they can skip 150 years and go straight to that year in their mind.
That diary is different things for different people. This is why it’s such a powerful teaching tool. A student can discover history for themselves, if they have the right object to trigger their desire to. This means discovering it for their reasons, which may not be at all like mine. An object – this diary – that enables them to enter into the world of the past in their own way is precisely what the teacher ordered for a class having a problem moment.
I’m lucky and the diarist has an entry for my birthday. “Fair weather and pleasant,” the writing tells me. “Shingle’d My Shop.”
I’ll keep the diary out of the box for a few days. If any of you want to know what happened in that tiny corner of the US on a particular date, just give me the date! About 2/3 of the diary is empty, so it’s a lucky dip.