When the Brooklyn Collection is closed to the public, we staff members go about our daily business enjoying a solitude that isn’t found in many areas of Central Library. That is until a class of 8th graders pours into our Reserve Room.
Thanks to a generous grant from the New York Life Foundation, the Brooklyn Collection is moving into the second year of the successful education program Brooklyn Connections. Brooklyn Connections helps 8th grade students complete the required Social Studies Exit Project by providing them with unprecedented access to the resources available here at the Brooklyn Collection. During the course of the year, almost 500 students will visit the library, participate in workshops, and develop a research question about Brooklyn that can be investigated using our materials. We are proud to be introducing Brooklyn history to a new generation of historians.
At first, the combination of 8th graders and a special collection seems awkward. It is hard to imagine middle school students getting excited about any school subject – particularly history. When students first arrive at the Collection, they are reticent and reluctant to participate in the days’ activities. But once they put their hands on a 19th century manuscript or locate their house in an atlas, their inquisitive nature appears. They quickly begin to see that there is a connection between their life in Brooklyn today and life in Brooklyn in the past.
If there is one thing I can say about Brooklyn Connections students, it is that they are proud of their hometown. During one memorable visit, a girl could not stop talking about Brooklyn. She told me she loved… no, LOVED… her borough. The only word sprawling across her t-shirt was “BROOKLYN.” She was convinced she already knew what it meant to be a Brooklynite. After eye-rolling her way through the opening lesson, she reluctantly picked up a book on the history of her neighborhood. Within minutes she exclaimed, “I had no idea there was so much written about Brooklyn! This is cool!” She, like so many of her classmates, was hooked.
Last year, while many students had fun learning about the Dodgers, Coney Island, and other famous landmarks, some students weren’t afraid to ask more difficult questions. One student investigated problems with education in Brownsville. Another questioned the effectiveness of public housing in East New York. An entire class from Flatbush studied Brooklyn’s role in the Civil Rights movement and the history of racism. The students learned how to form opinions and answer questions using historical documents as evidence. At the same time, I learned that 8th graders aren’t afraid to face the less-than-glamorous aspects of Brooklyn’s past.
This year, we are working to build on our success as we introduce an entirely new set of students to the rewards of local history research. As they progress through their projects, I will report back on the questions they ask, the history they uncover, and the opinions they share.