Teacher Uses Historical Memorabilia To Enliven, Enrich History Classes
Lincoln, Ill.--When 8th graders at Lincoln Junior High School take a field trip, they don't even have to leave their classroom. Right at their fingertips, they can see a $200 special-edition, hand-carved doll of President Reagan; religious statuary taken from a Berlin church during World War II; and confetti dropped on the floor of the Republican National Convention the night Richard M. Nixon was nominated for President in Miami.
"I bring the field trip into the classroom," says Paul E. Gleason, who teaches constitutional government at Lincoln Junior High School.
Mr. Gleason, who also writes a newspaper column on local history, says his own "field trips" and vast collections have helped put a spark in his teaching and in his students' learning.
"Textbooks are mostly facts, not many human-interest stories," says Mr. Gleason. "So I try to bring in the humanistic point of view."
That translates into lacing dry lectures on the mechanics of government with offbeat historical information. George Washington's father, he tells students, for example, married a woman of "liberal lifestyle.'' Amy Carter demonstrated her scientific curiosity in "the way things work" by putting a chain saw on her Christmas list. And the man who shot President Garfield was the son of the school superintendent in Freeport, Ill.
By using his enormous collection of slides, newpaper clippings, and assorted artifacts, Mr. Gleason insists he is able to reach students who are less motivated by traditional textbooks.
"The weaker student who has a hard time reading will get into my material," he says. "Some will learn despite resistance to learning. You take a little soul who's academically low and he might see something that causes him to read a paragraph. We're not all super readers, but we're all tourists."
42 Years of Collecting
A 25-year veteran of teaching, Mr. Gleason began collecting information of historical interest at age 5, when a picture in the newspaper caught his eye and he asked his parents to read the caption to him. It was a picture of his hometown's namesake. "I started with an interest in Abraham Lincoln"--he has more than 5,000 slides documenting the Great Emancipator's life--"and expanded it to all Presidents," he says.
Now, 42 years later, his collection consists of millions of newspaper clippings; thousands of slides and other pictures; 3,000 audio tapes of historic events such as the funeral of John F. Kennedy, the moonwalk of Neil Armstrong, and the resignation of Richard Nixon; political buttons dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose election is the earliest Mr. Gleason remembers; and items that defy easy categorization, such as a torch from a John F. Kennedy parade in Springfield in 1960, a piece of the Illinois float from a Presidential inauguration, and hot-dog wrappers from a Disney World bicentennial celebration.
His collections are not limited to political memorabilia. In recent years, Mr. Gleason's interest has branched out to include the U.S. space program, World War II, and, at the urging of his wife, the Olympics.
Still, his devotion remains with the Presidency. He cuts up five to seven newspapers a day. And he has "a day-to-day newspaper account of every Presidential election" since 1968. "I start with the guy who just looks like he wants to run and follow it through the election," he explains. At the height of a campaign, he says, clippings run as high as 200 a day.
Mr. Gleason spares no effort in his hunt for historical memorabilia. He buys four copies of each newspaper he reads--two to clip and two to keep intact. He sent $100 to a janitor who swept up after the Republicans in Miami to add the confetti and other artifacts to his collection. He says it cost him more than $6,000, including foregone salary, to attend Ronald Reagan's first inauguration. That was more than 10 times what he spent to attend his first Presidential inauguration, that of President Nixon in 1969.
By 1981, his collection had outgrown his home and he added a room to his residence to contain what eventually is to become the Library of the American Presidents, the opening of which he plans to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution in 1987.
Medal of Honor
The expense, the effort, and the time, he says, are worth it--to him and to his students.
In 1982, Mr. Gleason was awarded a Medal of Honor by the Daughters of the American Revolution, in part for having "inspired 18 former students to become history teachers." Former students are allowed to use his collection to research assignments for other high-school classes. And he has inspired some students to begin collections of their own--at least temporarily.
"One student collected political stuff, but then he switched to baseball," Mr. Gleason remembers. "Most end up collecting buttons for a year or so and then give them to me."