This piece was originally posted on Teaching the Past.
Whether we have an informed view of the past or not, an understanding of history is an important part of how we situate and re-evaluate our position in local, regional, national and international contexts. Because the past is so important to connecting and situating ourselves to others and the places where we live, it cannot be taught entirely from the classroom. History, I believe, is best taught collectively and collaboratively, with lessons that anchor into a student’s everyday experience and understanding of the past.
This point was driven home last week when my family and I – looking to better understand our new home in the upper Connecticut Valley – participated in a historical walk in the nearby community of Hartford Vermont. The walk was one of over 150 Valley Quests, a place-based educational program devoted to building community in the Upper Valley. Like many historical walks, this quest was led by a local resident who provided details about the community’s history, geography and everyday life. Unlike other historical walks that I have been on, however, the Valley Quest also integrates local schools and encourages regular public participation.
A Valley Quest is a hybrid between a historical walk, a treasure hunt and geocaching. The idea developed from a long tradition of ‘letterboxing’ in Dartmoor National Park in the United Kingdom. In the Valley Quest, participants follow a set of clues from a predetermined starting point in order to explore a particular place. By pointing out important landmarks, and telling local stories, each Quest connects participants to the community in which they are walking. At the end of the Quest, participants are required to find a treasure box which often contains additional information not included in the Quest guide and a sign-in book which connects you with other participants.
What is most intriguing about the Quests, though, is the way that the program integrates schools, museums, historical societies and the public. Valley Quests have been organized as part of school curriculum, museum education programming and through interested community partners. They take place on museum grounds, public land and private property. This diverse approach is manifest in the program’s four goals: 1) to foster a sense of place in the community; 2) strengthen the relationships between schools and their communities; 3) build intergenerational relationships; 4) strengthen relationships between new arrivals and people who have lived in the area for a long time.
From the perspective of a history teacher, what I love about Valley Quests is the way that they knit people, place and the past together. We could see these relationships at work on our walk last Sunday. Our Valley Quest was written by students at the local high school. Telling the region’s history through a well constructed poem, the students’ work walked us through the small community of Jericho in the hills behind Hartland and White River Junction Vermont. We were part of a group of ten people, led by members of the local historical society. As we walked, old stories were added to the students’ work and new stories emerged as participants shared their recollections of the region.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the structure of the Valley Quests helps to situate broader historical themes into local contexts that speak to participants’ experiences. Together the histories that were told during our Valley Quest drew on important historiographical themes of family and environment. Some stories emphasized the importance of community and family relationships during the settlement’s early days, particularly due to more limited mobility. Other stories told of the significant deforestation that occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, followed by the subsequent reforestation that has taken place over the past sixty years. Finally, and this was a central point, just by looking at the landscape and buildings upon it, a community’s story was told.
Touching on larger themes has made the Valley Quest an intriguing tool for the history classroom. Vital Communities, the organization that coordinates Valley Quests, has five guides that integrate Valley Quests into the Vermont and New Hampshire curriculum. The creation of these quests requires students to engage in a project that will have tangible results for the communities in which they live (i.e. ‘service learning’). It challenges them to grapple with a wide array of primary sources such as architecture, geography, oral traditions and history, as well as textual documents in order to both reconstruct a place’s past and tell it in a way that is interesting and compelling. In essence it puts the student in the role of public historian, crafting how quest participants experience and learn about the past.