Apprehension and Excitement: My Summer at Harpers Ferry

By Blair Mitchell ’16

Before the start of my internship at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, I only had vague ideas of what it was like to be a teacher. My thoughts were mostly along the lines of, “yeah, I could teach”. However, abstract thoughts rarely prepare you for the real thing. My vision of flawlessly teaching 30 middle-schoolers about history inevitably did not line up with reality, leaving room for doubt to creep in. At first it seemed daunting to be in charge of so many students and lead them through the history of Harpers Ferry. But as I observed and taught more I realized how much fun it was, in addition to being challenging.

Blair at HF
Blair at Harpers Ferry NHP

The best thing about my Mondays and Tuesdays working with middle school students from around the country is having the opportunity to teach them new things and possibly leave an everlasting mark on them. But this potential for success and failure is what made me so apprehensive about teaching in the first place.  For most of the children that I teach, this is the first time they have ever learned about John Brown, and this both excites and scares me. On one hand, it is exciting because I have the chance to inspire a child to become a historian, but on the other hand they could lose interest and label all history as “boring”. I have always been aware of the power teachers hold in regard to the interests and futures of their students, and this summer that responsibility has fallen to me. Even though I only have my students for a day, I still believe that just one day can make a huge impact.

Blair at HF2
Blair teaching a summer education program about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

Teaching about John Brown’s raid is especially interesting because it is such a divisive topic. Even though I try to give my students an unbiased account of John Brown’s actions, they will still form strong opinions about him. For example, when I tell them about Brown’s actions at Pottawatomie Creek, I’ll hear whispers along the lines of “that’s crazy!” However, I often have other students who will take an opposite stance on John Brown’s actions and paint him as a saint. I find that my students often fixate on the pieces of information that they relate to, or agree with the most. This habit is not unique to middle schoolers and is something that we all do naturally.

Interning at Harpers Ferry has taught me a lot about historical interpretation. Although teaching a group of students may seem very different from giving a program to a group of adults, it is actually quite similar. There is no age limit on finding something that your audience can relate to and using it to connect the past to the present. Once you find that overarching relevant theme for your audience, it elevates your subject from just something interesting to something real and memorable.  Spending this summer as a Pohanka Intern at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park has taught me a lot about history as well as myself.

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