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News High school history scholars

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UD-community partnership looks at 1968 Wilmington

​At the Delaware Historical Society’s Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage are (from left) UD English education students Shanna Abram and Rebecca Robbins, with Freedom School History Scholars Daria Coverdale, Dashawn Whye and Tania Howell.

Next year, when the Delaware Historical Society commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination and the civil unrest that followed, a group of high school students will be ready to offer insights from the community about that difficult time.

In a partnership that included the University of Delaware and the state’s first Freedom School, the society’s Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage this year piloted the Freedom School History Scholars Summer Program.

Over seven weeks this summer, 14 high school students learned how to do historical research, conduct oral history interviews and create museum interpretations for use in the Mitchell Center exhibition titled “Wilmington 1968.”

They studied at the Freedom School — a literacy and advocacy program — part of each day and then conducted research and interviews at the Delaware History Museum with the assistance of museum staff members and UD English education and graduate students.

“These high school students chose the 1968 project as their service project for the summer,” said Melva L. Ware, an adjunct faculty member in the School of Public Policy and Administration who oversaw UD’s role in the project. “It was a great learning experience for them and a real opportunity for the University of Delaware to take part in a collaborative community effort led by the Historical Society.”

Decades before this summer’s Freedom School History Scholars were born, Wilmington was torn by several days of violence in 1968. National Guard troops were mobilized to patrol the city for the next nine months — the longest military occupation of any U.S. city since the Civil War — despite calls from residents and city political, religious and business leaders for the governor, Charles L. Terry, to withdraw the troops.

The three UD undergraduates, all prospective English teachers, were recruited and trained by Deborah Bieler, associate professor of English. They worked with the younger scholars and said the experience taught them a lot about engaging students in learning and also about the civil rights movement and Wilmington’s history.

“I believe that the key take-away from this … directly stems from the interviews that students have conducted with members of the Wilmington community,” said Shanna Abram, a UD senior majoring in English education. “In addition to historical research, we have been able to learn powerful stories that we want to share with others.”

The high school students interviewed community members who lived through the events of 1968, many of whom came to the museum to speak to the scholars as a group. In addition, Ware said, some informally interviewed family members who remembered the riots and their aftermath but perhaps had never before talked to the teenagers about that experience.

“The project is very student focused, and we’re learning side by side with them,” said Rebecca Robbins, also a senior English education student at UD. “The fact that we as teachers are asking questions and learning from the research not only makes us seem more human, but it reinforces the idea that student and teacher ought to be partners in knowledge.”

As she, Abram and fellow student Alessandra De’Angelis prepare for their own classroom student teaching this year, they said they’ll draw on much of what they did this summer.

“One of the most rewarding aspects from this summer experience has been the collaboration and learning how to be flexible — flexible in terms of planning and ultimately knowing that it is important to focus on student-centered approaches, practices and techniques to ensure that learning is as engaging (and fun) as possible,” Abram said.

UD graduate students also worked with the summer project, assisting the high school students in finding resources for their research and evaluating the success of the project.

Jessé Edwards, a master’s degree student in urban affairs and public policy, said the research help she provided wasn’t directly related to her graduate work but that the process “helped me improve my own research skills.”

Doctoral student Nancy Contreras, in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, worked with Ware during the summer to assess the reading skills of students who took part in the Freedom School and also to interview the summer history scholars about their views of that program.

At the conclusion of the program, the 14 summer scholars presented their work to an audience of family and community members. The historical society expects some of the students will use their new knowledge to serve as volunteer guides to the 1968 exhibit.

Michele Anstine, chief program officer for the Delaware Historical Society, described the summer program collaboration as “a wonderful experience for all of us.”

“We hope to continue the experience for the students, to whet their appetite for history and research,” Anstine said. “We also see it as an opportunity to build a bridge between teenagers today and older generations.”

The high school students have come “to see that there’s a personal connection with history,” said Angela Winand, head of the Mitchell Center and the museum’s diversity programs.

Ware hopes the connections among the project partners will continue, including the benefits she sees for the University.

“Among many other advantages to this project, we see it as a way for UD to build a pipeline, with students becoming interested in history and in research, taking that interest from high school to undergraduate to graduate school,” she said.

More about the project partners

The Delaware Historical Society operates several properties, including the Delaware History Museum, the Jane and Littleton Mitchell Center for African American Heritage and a nationally recognized research library.

The Mitchell Center, which honors a couple who dedicated their professional lives to working for equal rights for Delawareans, includes the exhibition “Journey to Freedom,” which explores the state’s African American history.

The Freedom School in Wilmington is the first in Delaware and is part of a network of literacy, academic and social action programs founded through the Children’s Defense Fund and modeled after the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964. The Delaware program is located at Mother African Union Church and operates in conjunction with the Peter Spencer Family Life Foundation.

The University of Delaware students participated in the summer history scholars program with support from UD’s Community Engagement Initiative and the Office of Graduate and Professional Education.

Article by Ann Manser; photos by Evan Krape

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High school students conducted research this summer, in a partnership that included UD undergraduate and graduate students, on Delaware's civil rights history.

​High school students, assisted by UD undergraduate and graduate students, conducted research on Delaware's civil rights history.

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High school history scholars
  • Department of English
  • 203 Memorial Hall
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • University of Delaware
  • Phone: 302-831-2361