Encountering the Past at Crystal Bridges: An APSI Initiative

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From left to right, reporter Dave Perozek, Westside High School AP history teacher David Miller, A.P. U.S. history consultant Marsha Gray, and West Memphis High School history teacher (and father of honors economics/supply chain management senior Ashley Foster) Charles Foster discuss a piece of artwork at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

In my time as an AP history student, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a wide variety of material that gave me glimpses of the past, from documents to photographs to snippets of music. The most valuable sources, my European history teacher often repeated, are the ones that don’t have to be read about in a book – they can instead be seen, touched, and interpreted directly.

The Honors College is helping to spread this “hands-on” approach to history and many other subjects through its annual AP Summer Institute (APSI), discussed in more detail here. The college’s commitment to training more effective and innovative teachers was on full display on July 24, when participants in the U.S. history sessions of APSI traveled to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. I got to tag along and observe their training for an updated course curriculum.

“It’s about showing how art reflects our history,” explained institute consultant and former AP U.S. history teacher Marsha Gray. “I’ve asked the participants to think about four themes – cultural diversity, national identity, economics, and cultural shifts – and to find a piece of art that speaks to them on one of these issues.”

The goal is to generate AP history teachers who use primary sources from across the spectrum – not just documents and diaries, but painting and popular culture – to craft lessons and train the next generation of historians.

“As AP teachers, we get our students to think critically, which relies on more than rote memorization,” Gray continues. “The goal is to make our students capable of critically analyzing art as history… we want them to take advantage of sources other than the textbook.”

The trip to Crystal Bridges is meant to familiarize both new and experienced AP U.S. history teachers with the course’s new orientation, which shifts toward a more holistic approach involving deep analysis. This is, not surprisingly, precisely the sort of approach most university history programs employ – in my own experiences as a history major, a heavy emphasis has been placed on “reading between the lines” of cultural artifacts to tease out patterns and meanings.

Aaron Hinterthuer, a future AP teacher at West Fork High School, explains: “By engaging with the artwork, we’re essentially doing what the students will be expected to do. Everyone will approach teaching differently, of course, but we’re all getting insights into what the new curriculum entails – in short, we’re being educated on how much rigor it really does take.”

43 teachers took part in the tour, with some coming from as far away as Kentucky to receive training at APSI. Gray’s approach has already effected important changes in the way those involved conceptualize their subject. As a group of teachers stands near an exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s painting of Rosie the Riveter for the Saturday Evening Post, one turns and waxes lyrical on its sociocultural backdrop.

“It speaks to you,” he says with an understanding smile. “The same way it spoke to the first people who saw it.”

As I think back to my senior year spent studying European history through intensive attention to architecture, film, and visual art, I remember the insights I gleaned from hands-on contact with original source material – the tantalizing proximity with bygone human experience that ultimately inspired me to train as a historian. I muse fondly on the thought of the many students who will now get to enjoy similar opportunities to see, touch, and encounter the past.

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