Cooking like it’s 1889

Originally Published May 7, 2009 – The very first article I ever wrote for Examiner.com

During the blizzards a few weeks ago, we were some of the “lucky” who lost our power. But for us, that was no problem, because one of the great features about our house is an 1880s cookstove in the back room. Remembering how to use it as anything other than a huge woodstove was another thing. It’s a wonderful reminder of what our ancestors had to do for a meal. So I stoked the stove and set to cutting up potatoes and onions to bake in the iron dutch oven- a type of pot with legs and a lid, wonderful for cooking outdoors with, because you bury in the coals of your fire to cook. I had not realized just how much wood it takes to get a cookstove hot enough to actually bake something, and once it was, the room was so warm, people and dogs had retreated to other, unheated parts of the house. Imagine what that heat must have been like in the summer! I now understand a little better why bread making happened once a week, and why hot meals were had at dawn and noon, with a cool supper in the evenings. Here I had always thought it was that the farm folk needed more energy in the earlier parts of the day to keep them fueled up to work. Now I know it was because it was better to cook in the early part of the day, before the real heat of the day actually kicked in.

The trick of cooking on a woodstove is to keep your fire going. It’s much different than cooking over an open fire, because you rely on coals for cooking with an open fire. Not so the woodstove. If you’re down to coals, the rest of the stove is getting too cool and that could lead to a badly cooked meal.

Needless to say, our power eventually came back on, and the family had a good meal, cooked the way our great great grandparents cooked. This fall, I plan to put real baking to the test on this stove. Anyone want cookies?

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Unromancing history: Why the bad and the ugly is good to learn

Originally Published May 9, 2009

Those Who Fail To Learn History
Are Doomed to Repeat It;
Those Who Fail To Learn History Correctly —
Why They Are Simply Doomed.Achemdro’hm
“The Illusion of Historical Fact”
— C.Y. 4971

As humans, its natural for us to romanticize history; mothers do it with birth pains- forgotten soon after they hold their new child. Older people do it about their lives- their childhoods, their marriages, society as a whole, because it is easier on the psyche to remember the good things in life rather than the bad things.
Sometimes, the bad things in life are so bad that we cannot help but remember them. The Great Depression, The Holocaust,  9/11, Columbine. But even events as recent as nine years ago start to get their “romantic” edge- facts are changed, blurred, dulled a bit, so that we can take these events and more easily deal with them in order to get on with the business of everyday life, and hopefully happily.
So how have we romanticized history? Let’s look at the Victorian Era. Post Civil War, the opening of the West, a time of great opportunity for all. We have this image in our heads of the rugged individuals; strong men and women who come West and break ground, building farms and towns and the basis for Denver and Colorado as we know it today. We have this image in our heads of tan, lean men and women, proudly posing outside their cabins with their most prized possessions and children. We blame their lack of smiles on early photography (which could take up to 5 minutes to fully develop, so that actually IS a legitimate reason.) But no one mentions the number of people who gave up and returned East. Rarely is it talked about the number of folks, mainly women, who came down with “plains sickness” in which the open spaces of the plains literally drove them crazy. We don’t talk about the shortened lifespans our forefathers often had.
 In Colorado, we talk about prostitutes with hearts of gold and glorify them. We talk about Alferd Packer like he’s some school secret to giggle about, but not a real person who had his colleagues for dinner, in quite a literal way. We forget the “social clubs” a number of our founding fathers were involved in, the treatment of the Utes, the massacre at Sand Creek. Very few know the grotesque and highly sensationalized story of how the cemetery that used to be on Capital Hill came to be moved. At the time, the reporter in question wrote in glorious detail about how the bodies buried in Potter’s Field were dealt with.
These details about our state don’t lessen its value or dim the beauty of the mountains. Rather they add a sense of value, of belonging. When we realize that Baby Doe Tabor and Molly Brown weren’t always the perfect women, that Charles Boettcher and Horace Greeley weren’t the epitome of manhood, we can identify with them, we find the human side of them, which relates to the human side of us. It makes our history personal, makes us part of the state. It helps us realize that even the biggest movers and shakers of our past, present and future were and are still human at the end of the day.
By teaching our children the true history of our state, in context, we let them know that it is ok to make mistakes and still be a success in life, as well as show them through the example of our forefathers what things they can avoid in their futures to better ensure a good life for themselves and their future descendants.
Now, I’m not saying the early days of Colorado weren’t an exciting time, they most surely were. Things happened here in the West long before they happened in other parts of the country, mainly because the folks who did come to found our great state were indeed strong men and women; their actions have made us equally strong men and women.
But sometimes the strange and unusual facts, the parts that make our forebearers decidedly human, can be the most interesting parts of history.

Why we celebrate Memorial Day

Originally Published May 19, 2009

Just pretty carvings or do they have meaning? Common gravestone symbols and what they mean

Originally Published May 20, 2009

It’s springtime and that means walks in the park. But if you’re anything like me, the “parks” you choose to walk in arecemeteries. Colorado hosts a number of interesting cemeteries, from large old cemeteries like Riverside, to smaller, family started cemeteries that can be found all over the state. Cemetery architecture is some of the most unique and intricate stone carving work ever done, and the sheer variety of gravestones that can be found in just one cemetery can be astounding. Certain themes are repeated throughout the country, and throughout the world; common enough that a number of studies and books about the symbolism have been done.   Most of the symbols can give you a glimpse at the person buried there, or of their families who commissioned the stone. It’s a tantalizing piece of history that gives you a look into the every day life of the people from the past.

These are some of the most commonly found symbols.

Anchor – The anchor is a symbol of hope, and is often found on the stone leaning, or forms the base of a cross. Navy men, if they do not have a military headstone, often have an anchor on their stone.

Arch – the passage or gateway to heaven.

Book – Open, it represents an open heart and mind, ready to be received by God. A closed book symbolizes the end of life, a completion.

Dove – The most commonly used animal symbol, the dove represents purity and peace and is most often seen holding an olive branch in its beak, like the dove that returned to Noah on the ark.

Draped Urn and Draped Pillar – One of the most common 19th century symbols. The urn itself is unusual, because very few cremations were done, in the 19th century; rather it replaces the skull that was most common in earlier centuries. The draping represents the veil between life and death.

Ferns – Ferns are symbols of humility, frankness and sincerity; much like the fern, hard to find out in the open.

Gates – The gates of heaven.

Ivy – Ivy has many meanings; because it remains green even in harsh conditions, it is seen to symbolize immortality. Because ivy clings to whatever it grows on, it is also seen as a symbol affection and undying devotion. The three pointed leaves have also been used to represent the Trinity.

Lamb – one of the most common symbols used for a child’s grave, especially very young children. Lambs symbolize spring, the beginning of life, and innocence. It is also a symbol of Christ, who is often referred to as the “Lamb of God”- both his innocent child and his sacrifice. A lamb lying down is the most common form, however small children holding or surrounded by lambs are also often used for a child’s grave.

Lily – Usually an Easter Lily, it symbolizes purity and chastity. Lilies became a funeral flower before embalming became common, because their strong pleasant fragrance could mask other, less pleasant odors.

Lilies of the Valley – symbolize innocence, purity and virginity. Because it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring, it also symbolizes rebirth and resurrection.

Palm Leaves – Adapted symbolically from the Roman symbol of victory, Christians adapted it as a symbol of spiritual triumph over death.

Pillow or Cushion – A resting place.

Scroll – Used to symbolize the scriptures, even if they are not any biblical quotes on them.

Shells – The scallop shell is symbolic of a journey, or of baptism. Shells can be carved along the stone, or can be, as in our example, the whole of the gravestone itself. The one pictured here is even more unique because the shell holds an infant; the still visible details lead me to think that this was a representation of the child herself.

Sheaves of Wheat – Most commonly found on the stones of someone who lived a long and abundant life of 70 years or more. It is also a Masonic symbol of immortality.

Tree stumps – Used for the graves of men who were members of Woodsmen of the World. Founded in 1890 by Joseph Cullen Root, Woodsmen of the World was a fraternal organization not just for woodworkers, but also other men; they provided insurance and support for their members. The tree stump gravestone was formally adopted as the grave marker for the members in 1899. Occasionally, you will find older gravestones that are indeed tree stumps, but the Woodsmen trees stumps are specifically marked. Women of Woodcraft have similar gravestones; there is usually a section of cut log on its side, with the Women of Woodcraft emblem marked on the end of the log. Some of these logs are highly detailed; others are just column sections with the Women of Woodcraft symbol on the end.

There are many other symbols that I did not mention; most are the markings of fraternal organizations, or like the cross, are clear and obvious as to their meaning. Angels, Greek gods and goddesses, especially the Seven Virtues, a figure asleep or bent over in mourning, skulls or skeletons are all fairly common. Some symbols have no meaning except to the family of the person whose grave they decorate.

Sources – http://www.graveaddiction.com/symbol.html

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography

 

Unusual facts in American history

Originally Published May 29, 2009

As I’ve been going back through the books on my shelf, as well as this lovely stack from the library, I’m finding some unusual facts that I didn’t know before. I thought I’d share a few of these with you today.
Early Settlement – Did you know that the vast majority of our ancestors didn’t come over and immediately own land? Most came over as indentured servants; their service here in the “New World” for a period of four to seven years paid for their passage over. During their service, they were fed, clothed and housed. At the end of their service, they were given land, tools, and seeds – everything to get started on their own. This applied to men and women, blacks and whites equally- slavery didn’t get into full swing until later. This was very common practice throughout the 1600s and completely voluntary.
In the early days of the Virginia Colony, six out of every seven immigrants died within MONTHS of joining the colony, due to the much different conditions between here and England. So if you can trace your ancestors to the Virginia Colony, be proud that they were clearly very hearty and healthy folk!
The United States has been put on trial for war crimes, not just once, but several times, and found guilty as well; from the Revolutionary War up through World War II. However, no serious sanctions were ever rendered against the U.S.
Future President Van Buren warned President Andrew Jackson that putting a railroad system into place in the U.S. would have dire consequences; rampant unemployment and provide a national security breach in wartime.   Not only did Jackson ignore the warning, he hired Van Buren as his Secretary of State. Van Buren became our 8th president, and the railroads progressed, finally reaching coast to coast in 1869. Van Buren’s fears were unfounded; railroads helped the country prosper and were of great use during wartime.
The Civil war should have never happened, if calmer heads had prevailed, on sheer numbers alone. The Northern states had a population of 23 million; the males between ages fifteen and forty and eligible for military service numbered 4 million. The population of the Southern states was just nine million, of which three and a half million were slaves. That left them with a potential military force of just one million, and much less actually served.   But the South was indeed tenacious –the Civil War lasts four years.

Infant mortality in early Colorado

Originally Published May 29, 2009

Infant mortality isn’t something we think of much anymore; it has become such a rarity that it really isn’t even considered during pregnancy. Yet as I stood by my new grand nephew three weeks ago as he lay in the NICU, victim of a common virus contracted soon after his birth, the issue came back up and how important it was at the turn of the last century.

I was first confronted with this as a real issue for families in the 19th and early 20th centuries when I first visited the Crested Butte Cemetery. One family plot caught my eye; mom, dad, a girl who had died around age 6 and then a section about ten feet wide that had one stone that merely said “babies”.

Our cemeteries are full of small gravestones with lambs, iron crib frames marking the surrounds of the grave, short lived dates or just the phrase “baby” on a simple stone. In some cases, a larger stone, with mother and child on it, can be found. But the further we get into the 20th century, less and less of these stones can be found. By 1920, they are few and far between.

Infant mortality was such a big issue that many families refused to name their newborns until it seemed sure that the child would survive; sometimes “baby” didn’t get a name until after the child’s first or second birthday.

Prior to 1900, infant mortality rates (babies who died within the first year of life) could get as high as 300 deaths per 1000 live births. This fluctuated with the weather, the economy, what diseases were running through. Even early glass baby bottles were causes of infant death; they had a rubber tube that ran from bottle to nipple, and those tubes were not easy to clean, so they often contained bacteria that attacked an infant’s delicate immune system.

The 1870 mortality charts for Colorado tell a grim story, especially in the mountain counties, where infants and small children are the majority of reported deaths. Scarlet fever, whooping cough, and brain fever were commonly listed as the cause of death. Lung infections, like bronchitis and pneumonia, curable today, also took a number of small children. Costilla County for 1870, which also lists the oldest living person I’ve found so far in these records (Julian Sanchez who died at the age of 104 of old age) has 17 infant deaths out of 34 deaths listed.

Many of the Colorado census records from 1900 say things like “Seven children born to this person and three were still living.” Often the census was the only record of a family birth or death; children born at home were not always registered nor received birth certificates.

Luckily, by the beginning of the 20th century, many innovations of the industrial era improved the health and lifespan of infants – a focus on cleanliness, more babies being born in hospitals and getting immediate medical care, central heating, cheaper clothing, and later on, antibiotics and vaccinations helped lower those rates dramatically. In 2004, the rate of infant deaths per 1000 live births was only 6.3. Today, that rate is similar; most infant deaths now are due to premature births and birth defects. We can thank the industrial revolution for the innovations and inventions, medical and every day use items that have allowed us to not have to consider this eventuality.

http://www.pbs.org/fmc/timeline/dmortality.htm – timeline of infant mortality

http://users.erols.com/mwhite28/inf-mort.htm – world infant mortality maps

http://www.censusfinder.com/colorado.htm – Colorado census records available online

For Kaiden – April 25, 2009 – May 15, 2009

A question from a reader: How did cemeteries begin?

Originally Published May 29, 2009

Burial of the dead and the rituals that surround it can be traced back to the Neanderthals, who  started by putting their wounded or ill in caves that they blocked with rocks to keep predatory animals out. If the person got well, they would be able to push the rocks away. If not, then it became their grave.
In Egypt, elaborate tombs for the nobility were created, with all the accoutrements of life being placed with the body of the dead. In England and parts of Europe, barrows were created, earthen mounds over a cave like structure; the bigger your barrow, the more important you were in life. Knowing that the hygiene surrounding a corpse could be a big health issue, these burial areas were placed outside of city walls. However, as the cities grew, the burial area often got incorporated into the city.
Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem if the idea of one person, one grave had been kept to, but often the graveyard sextons sold and resold the same plot of land, causing person after person to be buried in the same place.  But even where this wasn’t the case, sometimes it was the upper classes that caused the problem with their mausoleums. Many mausoleums were set up with a pit beneath them so that when the next person in the family died; the boards the last body was laying on were pulled, dumping that family member into the pit. At times of high disease, this could mean there were several decomposing bodies in the same space at the same time.
Add in the amount of crime that happened in cemeteries – not just body snatchers, but thieves looking for goods on the bodies, even prostitution was conducted among the graves, in the mausoleums and in the catacombs.
This was a common problem in the U.S. and overseas – so much so that in 1780s, the famous catacombs of Paris were emptied and moved to a new series of catacombs outside the city. In 1914, San Francisco closed their cemeteries and insisted new ones be formed outside of city limits.
The cemetery as we know it today came about in the 1830s, the early Victorian Era, as death became romanticized and the park like feature of the cemetery emerged. Gone were the cramped church yards, and the randomly scattered cemeteries of before – now the plots were laid out in an east facing direction, with wide avenues between the rows, groomed lawns and plenty of trees. It encouraged the visitation of graves; families would bring picnics and spend the day with their passed loved ones. Grave stones became more elaborate and decorative, as well as for everyone, not just the elite or nobility. Embalming practices that came about in the 1850s and 60s helped eliminate many of the concerns surrounding the body, and a standardized depth for the burial of the dead was accepted nationwide. Other regulations helped keep the atmosphere park like.
As before, cemeteries started at the outskirts of town, but as town grew up around them, they either became part of the landscape, closing to new “membership” as the grounds filled, or the cemeteries were moved, with the bodies going to a new location or another cemetery altogether. Such was the case in Denver – City Cemetery used to stand where the state capital now does; its membership moved to various other cemeteries about the city, including Riverside and Fairmount.
Today, new cemeteries are in the same model as those of the Victorian era. Some even adopt a more park like atmosphere with the gravestones flush with the ground.

Taking our Kodachrome away- the end of a photographic era

Originally Published June 22, 2009

To quote Paul Simon, “please don’t take my Kodachrome away” But this is exactly what will be happening as Kodak retires its Kodachrome film after 74 years, due to waning sales, competing films and the transfer to digital photography.
Kodachrome film was first invented in 1936 by Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky Jr as a 16 mm film for movies. In 1936, Eastman Kodak introduced Kodachrome to the masses in a 35 mm film for still photography.
Kodachrome, since its introduction, has been known for its clarity, sharpness and vivid colors: it has graced the pages of Time, Life and National Geographic, putting our world into a new era of photography that popped from the page. We can all go through our family photo albums and find pictures of our grandparents, parents and us, taken with Kodachrome and printed on Kodak papers – and the images still retain the quality they did when they were new.
From 1936 through 1989, Kodachrome remained supreme in the photographic market, and is still the premiere film used for archival purposes.
Alas, the era comes to an end, as more of us go digital and other, less expensive but still quality films have flooded the marketplace since the 1990s, Kodak has seen a steadily declining market and now over 70% of their business is in the digital market.
Kodachrome, though it has stopped production, has enough film stock left to last in the marketplace through early fall, and will continue to process the film through 2010.
It is time to get out and dust off our SLR cameras, go buy one last roll of Kodachrome and through taking photos documenting our own personal histories, commemorate the end of an era of photography.

Denver Story Trek – discovering Downtown Denver’s historical secrets

Originally Published July 1, 2009

Last Wednesday, I was invited to come along on Denver’s Story Trek. Having never heard of it before, I was interested and found it well worth the trip into Downtown Denver.

Started last year by Nobel-Erickson, the Denver area museums got together to help people learn about thehistory of Downtown Denver. As Denver as grown, many of it architectural and historical jewels have gotten a bit lost among the high rises and office buildings. Denver Story Trek helps people learn about them in a new way.
You can start your Denver Story Trek by heading to their interactive website –www.denverstorytrek.org   From there, you can choose to follow one of their featured treks, or choosing from their list of story sites, you can create your own trek. At each site, there is a signpost that marks it as a Denver Story Trek site, give you a phone number you can call, and tells you which story number to listen to. The stories include a scripted history of the site, as well as stories that have been recorded by those who have an historic connection to that site. Denver Story Trek is set up so that you can drive, walk or bike to each site and learn more about them. Currently, there are five museums on the trek that you can go into, as well as the governor’s mansion, five local parks and links along the Cherry Creek bike path.
Our group took the “Shedding the Frontier Rawness” tour, which started at the Molly Brown House Museum, and went to the Byers-Evans House Museum, Past Civic Center park, Cheeseman Park, the Governor’s mansion, Crawford Hill mansion, Stoiberhoff mansion, through the Denver Country Club neighborhood and circled back around to the Kirkland Museum.   Now as a teenager, I had worked in this neighborhood selling subscriptions to the Denver Post, but I didn’t know so many noteworthy historical sites were located so closely together. Taking the tour  – we did it by car – gave me a second look at the area and how nice it still is.
Now if you don’t have a cell phone, you can go to the website and download the MP3s for each site you wish to visit, and take them along on an MP3 player, playing them as you get to each site. You can also play them directly on the website at home to learn about the site before you take your trek.
If you sign into the site, you can use it to create your own trek, or leave comments about each site that you have visited. I signed in, just to see what I could do. Note, there is no prompt to check your email, but do so to activate your account. Making your own trek is easy. You choose “My Treks” from the list on the left, give it a name and description, and then by checking the boxes, you can choose which sites you’d like on your trek. Hit the “create” button, and your list is mapped as well as all the relevant sound bytes listed, just like on the premade treks. You can save them, make new ones, print your trek, even share the page on Facebook, Twitter and a myriad of other sites.
The site also has histories of people who were important to the forming and development of Denver, as well as other colorful characters that graced our city with their presence at one time or another.
Denver Story Trek is free, but they are offering a summer special in conjunction with the five museums on the list. For $52.80, two adults can get entry to all five of the museum. This is a reduced price ticket, and gives you the opportunity to see history from the inside as well as the outside.
Denver Story Trek currently has 16 historical sites listed and sign posted, with many more planned in the near future, as well as other tours planned for the future. More oral histories of the era are being added all the time, as well as famous and infamous people, so keep checking the site for new information.
I personally plan to take a day off sometime soon and tour all the sites, as well as go into all the museums and the governor’s mansion. So if you see me standing on a sidewalk somewhere with my IPod in my ear, you’ll know what I’m doing – and feel free to join me!

Making History fun in the classroom

Originally Published July 14, 2009

When you think back to school, what subject did you find interesting, even if you didn’t much like it? I’ll bet your answer is science. What subject did you maybe like, but found the most boring thing ever? I’m willing to bet it was history. And why? Because in science, sometimes you got to do things with chemicals, make things turn different colors, crystallize, give a bad smell, cut something open to see its innards, or if you were really lucky, someone – on accident – made something explode. In other words, you were involved in youreducation. History class? Names, dates, this battle, that battle, blah blah blah blah blah. I can say this, because I’ve sat in many history classes, and sometimes, I’ve been that teacher who has stood at the front of the room and gone blah, blah, blah.
Oh, it wasn’t really blah, blah, blah, but the more you talk, the more likely it is the information isn’t being absorbed, no matter how often you quiz or test upon the subject. Think Charlie Brown’s teacher – that’s how we all sound sometimes. But we can get around that.
Sometimes, you need to stop and make the history come alive and relevant to the class, no matter what the age. Here are some suggestions for teachers, homeschoolers and parents just trying to keep something educational in front of their kids during the summer.
Make it relevant. But what does that mean? A lot of kids – and adults – have a hard time visualizing a life different than theirs. Pictures help, but how can you understand why a group of men wore skirts (kilts) or women could sit with a hula hoop in her skirt?
The first and easiest way is to try to put things in a frame of reference they can understand. Get them into the lifestyle the people of your time period lived. Now I’m not suggesting you take a class of fourth graders into the woods, have them strip naked and attempt to hunt deer with wooden spears like the cavemen. Or attempt mummification techniques on a classmate. But there are other methods for getting hands on. AND on a budget.
First, I would suggest a visit to a living history museum in your area or state. Now, not every state has one, nor are there always the funds in a school or family budget that will allow you to go to the museum. However, if you can, you will find that the museum has an educational program/tour in place. Some museums offer an in-depth program – usually popular with the older students and home school groups – where they spend an hour or more at a specific site and create an item that would have been made at that site. For example, they get to feed livestock and milk a cow at a farm site. Or they help cook a meal over an open fire, and eat it too. Or they help make a class broom. Any number of things, things they will remember long after they’ve graduated high school.
Getting a local expert in something relevant to the time period to come in and demonstrate for the students is another good idea. Most of these bring something that the class can do and keep, to get them engaged and interested.
Can’t afford to do this? That’s ok – put on the thinking cap, call friends, go to the conventions – ideas on a really tight budget are there in abundance.
. One of the best presentations I’ve ever seen for any age, and one I’ve used myself, is the historical artifacts presentation. A group of common artifacts (usually kitchen implements) or reproductions is gathered and the children are put into groups and have to guess what the artifact is for and how it was used. It’s actually quite humorous some of the answers you can get, and now the children are invested in finding out what this item really is, so they listen when you explain and demonstrate the item. Even adults love this.
Getting clothing from the time period- there are a lot of costumers who will volunteer their time if you provide the materials – and having a dress up time in the class helps bring the pictures to life. It’s silly, there will be giggling, but it can help give a better understanding of some of the behaviors of the folks during that time. Tip – if a student doesn’t want to participate in the dress up, don’t force them. They will learn just as much if they watch the others. Be sure you’re not just providing a pile of clothes – explain what they are and why they are worn as they are pulled out. Make this a guided activity, not a recess.
Bulletin boards – what? They are not passé, I promise you. In fact, they can be a great lead in to the next section you’re going to be studying. Make them colorful, interesting, informational and make them 3-D. It can be done. Go to a museum of natural history for inspiration on how to set it up with enough, but not too much, info. Make it something they get to see often – like put the assignment  baskets under the billboard. If a student is engaged in looking at the bulletin board, let them- unless, of course, there is a time issue. This can be done at home as well as in a classroom.
Recipes are a great way to make children realize that history is current as well as past. Have them go to a family member and get their favorite recipe, and have them find out why that recipe is a favorite and memories around it – whether it is a family tradition, a childhood memory or something more. Make a class recipe/history book that each student can have.
Make something – and give them class time to do it. Civil war your topic? Recreate an aspect of it. Make a cannon, make a battle diorama, make a doll in proper costume. Get creative with the materials – one of my favorites was the 1/10 scale cannon made fully out of legos – in the right colors. My At Risk students make stone brochs with a little clay from the art teacher, stones from out in the parking lot, and grass from the field for thatching.
I was very lucky with  my supervising teacher during my student teaching; he allowed me to experiment and do these kinds of things to get the students involved. Our favorite activity was regarding immigration and Ellis Island. I made a slideshow on the computer with music from the era. Some students were bored. I talked about the era. More students were bored. I gave a test – some students outright failed, which meant I failed to engage them. But our last activity was remembered. We took over the auditorium, got an extra class period and my A students became my co-conspirators. On a small budget, with some note cards, some cardboard boxes, a spray bottle full of water and a piece of rabbit fur on a string tied to a stick, the whole process of immigration got reenacted. Total spent? About $10, because I got the cards laminated. The students- two classes at a time – had to endure the process of coming to America and making it through immigration. As we started, each student got a card with an identity. Each card had a coded mark that my “Inspectors” knew but the class didn’t. The cardboard boxes became the boat on the stage – the students carried all their class books in a pillow case to simulate bringing all they owned with them, and had to sit all crammed together in the boat. A blindfold of some kind was on each student to simulate the darkness of a ship’s hold; the squirt bottle demonstrated how the boat could leak and the rabbit fur on the string became a “rat’ that scurried over passengers. The helpers pushed on the sides of the cardboard boat to simulate a rough sea. Of course, all this was narrated for the students in the “boat” by me.
Next, the students got to stand in line with their bags – never setting them down for fear their stuff could be stolen- and got to go through the inspectors. They had their names mispronounced and written down wrong in a book, had to have their tongues and eyes checked, and at some point, some of them – due to the codes on their cards – got to go back onto the stage to wait for the next boat to take them home due to disease or criminal record. Once everyone had been through the line, we all sat down and discussed the event. Even the students who had been the inspectors realized that they now understood the whole process better; the students who were getting sent back actually felt a bit upset that they had to leave. All in all, the students gained a better understanding of what their ancestors had gone through to get here, and some even remembered it into adulthood. And my supervising teacher had the best laugh of his life.
Now this was a complex undertaking, and took a lot of time. But the same kind of experiences can be had on a smaller scale, within the confines of your classroom. A little creativity, a bit of willingness to step outside of the box, the principal or department head’s permission (always get this) and you can come up with new ways to teach history that will make it the MOST memorable class in school, rather than the least.