Palo Alto Historical Association project aims to 'ignite passion for history'

Students learn local history while preparing curriculum to teach it

Those fascinated by the history of Palo Alto are fortunate to have a historical society with an archive of 13,000-plus photographs depicting life in Palo Alto and historians who can talk about the backstory of local neighborhoods and streets.

The Palo Alto Historical Association, a nonprofit organization established in 1948 as a successor to an earlier group founded in 1913, is dedicated to recognizing and preserving the city's history.

In its efforts to collect and make available the history of Palo Alto, the organization financed with the help of a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund the "Out of the File Cabinet, Into the Classroom" project to provide third-grade students and teachers primary sources to study local history. One goal was the creation of lessons that align with the Common Core Standards' emphasis on a strong knowledge base, incorporation of evidence and critical thinking, according to a Palo Alto Historical Association (PAHA) newsletter.

Four students Julian Moran and Maya Miklos from Gunn High School and Zofia Ahmad and Kenton Kwok from Palo Alto High School spent the summer working on the project under the direction of Gunn teacher Brian Tuomy and PAHA historian Steve Staiger.

Moran, Miklos, Ahmad and Kwok collected old maps, photographs, newspaper articles and other documents to develop a curriculum surrounding four themes: early Palo Alto, the Stanford family, childhood and schools.

The idea was to use primary sources, such as documents and physical objects that were written or created during the time under study, including photographs, official records and interviews, Staiger said.

Moran got involved with the project after Tuomy recommended it to him.

"I was thrilled not only by the possibility of gaining further understanding of local history but also the work experience I would gain by participating," he said.

The history interns explored a PAHA collection known as the Guy Miller Archives and were tasked with choosing interesting primary sources or "artifacts" as the students called them that would entice third-grade students to learn and care about Palo Alto history.

"Both Mr. Tuomy and Mr. Staiger were invaluable resources throughout the entire process," Moran said. "Mr. Tuomy was there whenever I needed to bounce an idea off but also whenever I needed confirmation that I was working toward the right direction. Mr. Staiger's seemingly limitless knowledge of Palo Alto history often helped expedite research."

Moran, whose focus was local schools, concentrated on the history and evolution of institutions.

"While we each worked independently on a theme, almost all of our themes overlapped at least a little," Moran said. "When one of us felt that we had information that would benefit another we were more than willing to share it with each other. Some of the artifacts that I used were maps of early Palo Alto school districts, a series of report cards from 1917, photos of early schools and photos of graduating classes from long ago."

The interns spent the majority of the time working at the archives, "sifting through the dozens of cabinets looking for something (they) felt would interest third-grade students," but a lot of the writing took place at their homes, Moran said.

Moran said he is proud of what the team accomplished and believes the crafted lessons will "help teachers ground many aspects of local history for the students.

"While many students have difficulty understanding an abstract theme such as history, the artifacts and accompanying writing should help make these concepts more approachable," he said. "The most important outcome, however, would be that the artifacts will ignite the same passion for history that I have developed."

Tuomy reflected on his work with the four students in a PAHA newsletter, saying, "I am proud as an educator, Palo Alto native, and community member to be a part of this effort, and to see that kids can be passionate about this community."

"Because of the work of these high school students, the third graders in this town are able to have some knowledge of what was literally beneath their feet many generations ago," he added.

Staiger said the next step is getting the sources into a format for teachers to access, including putting it on the PAHA website and/or the Palo Alto school district's website.

"It's something we are working toward," he said.

Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund website.

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3 people like this
Posted by mom
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 7, 2014 at 2:52 pm

I hope they include original inhabitants before gold rush

4 people like this
Posted by Enough!
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 7, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Interesting to focus on the history of Palo Alto when there is such a push to make this City unrecognizable from the City that it once was. There was once a real sense of diversity (culturally and economically) in Palo Alto, and even more special, an even stronger sense of community. That's all but gone now. The new proposed project seems ironic at best.

2 people like this
Posted by PA Dad
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2014 at 10:55 am

Thanks for the article. It's great to see Palo Alto promote opportunities for students in humanities, and not just technology. Working with primary sources is an incredible way to learn. In a world where everyone seems to be staring into their little screens, it's gratifying to see young students passionate about history. Thank you Mr. Tuomy and congrats to Julian, Zofia, Maya, and Kenton!

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2014 at 12:16 pm

[Post removed at poster's request.]

Like this comment
Posted by PA Dad
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Wayne - I agree. I went to the PAHA meeting on this - a good portion of their effort involves putting the material online. Zofia showed the website she had put together during the summer. My purpose of my comment was to celebrate students who are interested in more than just the tech world. I believe this is of national importance - everyone seems intent on reducing their commitment to the humanities and the liberal arts.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 8, 2014 at 12:35 pm

[Post removed at poster's request.]

4 people like this
Posted by PA Dad
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2014 at 4:37 pm

>> everyone seems intent
>> on reducing their commitment to the humanities and the liberal arts.
> I'm not totally certain that this is true.

Wayne - I suggest you get your facts straight. Access to material (on or offline) is just one small part of the education equation. Also important are funding, acknowledgement by hiring companies that a liberal arts degree is important, strong high school and college curricula, a healthy influx of bright students, etc. Here's an example NY Times article:

Web Link

To quote: "Financing for humanities research in the United States has fallen steadily since 2009, and in 2011 was less than half of one percent of the amount dedicated to science and engineering research and development. This trend is echoed globally."

More programs that encourage humanities (like this one) are required nationwide to stem this unfortunate national trend.

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