Uncoverage: Empowering Students to Become Part of History
As a doctoral student at Brandeis, Deborah and her classmates were encouraged to design “readings courses” around topics of interest that weren’t otherwise available in the curriculum. As is sometimes the case, the one willing to do the legwork gets to chart the course, and so Deborah dragged her classmates—and their professor, Jonathan Sarna—along for a ride in a semester of Readings in Jewish Organizational History. The class read some snoozers that slogged through institutional history, decade by decade, president by president, but the students left with some core takeaways that stuck:
• You cannot understand how or why an organization functions the way it does today without understanding its origin story, evolution, core myths, history and leadership structures.
• Knowing an organization’s history enriches and deepens our connection and capacity to humbly lead, change and grow an organization.
• The most powerful organizational histories are those that show rather than tell the stories.
• The use of primary sources, including artifacts, interviews, memoirs, documents and media, deepens the engagement at the time of research and of sharing that research with a wider audience.
• The research process has the power to build transformative relationships and connections that enrich the researcher, the consumer and the institution.
The experience reinforced the power of uncoverage, a pedagogy that emphasizes the transformative impact of student discovery in learning history. At our school, Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital, part of the core teaching philosophy in founding a middle school is uncoverage’s empowerment of students to discover and uncover through the use of primary sources, meaning-making through these modalities, building a connection to who and what came before them, and a commitment to those who will come after. As happened when students created a documentary in honor of the school’s 30th anniversary, the process of uncoverage can have a transformative effect on the student themselves and on those whose stories they uncover.
The Work of Uncoverage
Our school’s 30th anniversary coincided with its inaugural middle school class, presenting an opportunity to look both back and forward. In the process of creating a documentary to commemorate this threshold moment, students engaged with one central idea: how the stories we tell and the memories we relate create our identity and help illuminate not only the past but the path ahead. To begin our study, we examined Judaic texts about commandments to remember and considered the way our tradition elevates and amplifies the role of storytelling as core to translating our values and maintaining our heritage. For this class in particular, looking back as we forged a new future for our school felt timely and critical.
As the students immersed themselves in boxes of artifacts, they found certain central keys to our identity emerge. In the letters, photos, yearbooks, newspaper articles the students examined, they saw certain themes emerge, including our school’s commitment to empowering students’ voices and impact, fostering collaboration among teachers, students and our families, and cultivating an authentic interactive pluralist community. Through their interviews with families who helped found our school, the students learned about how parents took a leap of faith and stuck by their vision for a school even when uncertainties abounded. They learned how the families knew that joy in learning would come from being together with their teachers and friends and in uncovering the relevance of their learning to their own lives.
Our sixth graders met with alumni who were the first graduates of our school’s elementary school and understood through their reflections that the years spent at our school were looked upon with the warm nostalgia for a time when they felt whole, cared for and part of a family within our school. They met with former and current students who came to our Jewish day school with different backgrounds and practices but with a unified commitment to being part of a meaningful and intentional Jewish community. In these interviews and through their research, the students saw a story emerge that helped them understand the ways the school they learned in and were helping to grow was itself formed and then formed its own students.
Finding Themselves in the Story
Over the course of our work together to recognize and celebrate the milestone of our 30 anniversary, we discovered a critical facet to the value of sharing our story with others and with ourselves at institutional milestones of celebration. The students experienced how telling the story of our school helped us to truly understand what we were celebrating at our anniversary. And then we realized something that deepened our understanding of how to mark these moments. Our students not only learned the story, they became part of our school’s continuously unfolding narrative.
In marking milestone moments and celebrations, schools should certainly help students, teachers and families learn their story, but it is essential that the students themselves see their part of their story. Students should not only take in the organizational memory of a place that helps form their early identities and experiences, they should take part in creating the memory, the story, the record of what the school is and will become.
When our students created the documentary, they worked as archivists, researchers, interviewees, filmmakers, audiovisual technicians, editors and ultimately, storytellers. When we celebrate highlight moments of culmination and commencement in our schools, we should create and amplify opportunities for our students to uncover, share and see themselves as part of that very story and understand that they will be the authors of its next chapters.
Perhaps one small chapter of our story about making the anniversary documentary can best reflect the power of becoming part of the stories we tell ourselves. In rummaging through boxes of artifacts early on in our process, a student found a speech written almost 20 years prior by a sixth grade student named Ezra. In 2001, Ezra delivered the speech before a local zoning agency to advocate for a particular location to serve as our school’s home when we were in search of one.
This same student then had the opportunity of interviewing Ezra, now an adult working in DC. He came to be interviewed by our student researcher and was presented with the typewritten copy of the speech he had written so long ago. Awash with surprise and nostalgia, Ezra marveled at the fact that we found this speech that he had last seen when he was in sixth grade, and more importantly, that the school that had empowered him to speak before the zoning agency was now empowering its students to be at the helm of the entire documentary project. He had played a part in the school’s history and in helping to carve out its future, and the students who made the documentary were doing the very same thing in their own way.
When our students premiered the documentary at a red carpet event at a local movie theater, they shared these stories of the process, showed the film, answered questions and presented the school with the movie poster they created for the film they made. They told the story of our school’s first 30 years, and became central figures in our continuing journey.
You can view the documentary here.