Receiving an email from Wayland, Massachusetts History Department Head Kevin Delaney is always a special treat. Every other year or so, Kevin notifies me about the latest installment of the Wayland High School History Project, a series of very deep historical investigations at the intersection of local people and global issues. Students in Kevin’s classes closely research a historical figure from Wayland and his or her connections to the major issues of their time. They compose a biography of the subject’s life, and post it online, along with an annotated archive of the source materials. It’s a wondeful combination of old-fashioned historical inquiry and networked, multimedia publication. Previous years have focused on the life stories of Wayland’s Vietnam Veterans, and the extraordinary story of Lt. Col. Martin W. Joyce, who became the commanding offer of the Dachau concentration camp after the liberation by the Allies (the latter is now in talks to be turned into a film).
This year the project focused on a suffragate from the World War I era, Jessica Lord Cox Henderson. Students asked the question: “So how does a rather ordinary woman, born in Pittston Maine and subsequently spending most of her adult years in Wayland, end up raising a traditional family while simultaneously raising hell?”
From the project introduction, Mr. Delaney writes:
A mother of six and an uncompromising activist of national repute, Henderson hijacked our classes' plans to delve into multiple early 20th century domestic themes, and we instead exhumed what turned out to be her incredible story. In a whirlwind of action akin to Theodore Roosevelt, Henderson both embraced and spearheaded multiple causes, most notably joining Alice Paul on the front lines of the suffrage movement and proudly serving jail time for her audacious belief that women should not only have the right to vote, but must also have the constitutional protections of full and equal rights. A pacifist during the World War, Henderson openly defied mainstream patriotism, believing the war was in the interests of plutocrats and corporatists alone, ultimately resulting in an official investigation (we even discovered her Bureau of Investigation file). As the 1920's began to roar, we find Mrs. Henderson serving as one of the key figures in the Sacco-Vanzetti defense effort, meanwhile moving progressively further left in her political orientation despite, and enabled by, her significant wealth. Whether it was suffrage, social justice, pacifism, or anti-vivisection, her commitment to cause was unflappable.
Students wrote her life story in five chapters, describing her early life, campaigns on the three V (vivisection, vegetarianism, and vaccination), pacifism, suffrage, and political radicalism. The chapters are illustrated with primary source photographs and news clippings, and they portray the life of an activist committed to a variety of causes over her life, stitching together mentions of Henderson in news media and secondary courses to pull together a complete and compelling picture of her life.
What continues to strike me about the Wayland History Project is that students are engaged in real, meaningful historical work. The investigations that students conduct make a true contribution to our understanding of one small town’s most interesting citizens, and a broader sense of the political and social currents of the time. The Wayland History Project is a fabulous example of how new technologies allow students to engage in authentic scholarly practice, and share their work with other.
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