Generations connect for living history lessons about the 1950s

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BY DON RATZLAFF
Jim Robb was trying to think of an effective way to convey to his U.S. History students what life was like for high schoolers during the 1950s.

The Hillsboro High School social studies teacher was too young then to remember much about life in those days, and traditional history books weren’t of much help either.

On his daily drive between school and his home in Newton, an idea occurred to him: Why not connect students directly with primary sources?

“What do they really need to know to find out about the ’50s?” Robb said. “I mean, watching ‘Happy Days’ on TV isn’t it. So you talk to the people who were in high school.”

Robb’s idea came to fruition Thursday evening when his students sat around tables in the high school commons with about 32 area adults who were high school students during those years.

Between bites of pizza and sips of soda, the older generation shared stories and answered questions as the younger generation took notes.

“I thought it went really well,” Robb said of the evening. “I thought there was great interaction between the kids and the alumni. I think it will provide lots of opportunity for further discussion and is probably something we’ll try to do again.”

To gather alums from that generation, Robb sent letters of invitation to graduates of Hillsboro, Durham and Lehigh high schools who still live in the immediate area.

“My biggest fear was that this day would come around and there would be no RSVPs-then what do I do?” he said. “I guess the kids will come, we’ll have some pizza and we’ll go home.”

But the fear proved groundless. About 32 alums responded positively to the invitation.

“It was a great response,” he said.

Some alumni responded to Robb’s request to bring yearbooks and other memorbilia from their high school years.

To help get the conversation started, Robb came up with a list of nine questions that touched on a range of topics-from where families got their news in the 1950s, to social activities during those years, to the nature of athletics and team rivalries.

Students will use the notes they took to do some writing about their evening of interaction. Robb is thinking about creating a booklet from those reports and sending copies to the alumni participants and local libraries.

This experiment came about in part because the state has refocused history studies at the high school level in recent years. Instead of trying to a broad survey of from ancient days to the present, Robb’s revamped US. History class focuses from about 1840 to the present.

“What that means is I can go into a little bit more detail, particularly about things around the end of the (20th) century, from 1950 and 1960 on,” he said.

Part of the study has focused on foreign policy issues, including the two world wars and the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Additional themes include civil rights, economic issues, population shifts and space exploration.

U.S. History is a required class for juniors who want to graduate.

This is Robb’s second attempt this semester to have students tap primary sources. While focusing on World War II, students had to interview someone who lived during those years. From those interviews, students created notebooks that were displayed in the school library.

“There is a greater and greater emphasis on being able to engage in oral history, to get the stories down, to make connections with a group of people that is fast disappearing,” Robb said.

He believes bringing together different generations has multiple educational benefits-even if a pizza-party is not a traditional format for learning.

“Sometimes, as teachers, we become so engrossed with (state) standards and assessments that we don’t think we can gamble and try some stuff,” he said. “So I’m gambling here and trying to step outside of the box.

“What can we do to get kids and people who have experienced some things together so they can learn from one another?”

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