Learning How History Is Made

Students visit the School archives.

Where can 3rd graders become historians? In the Sidwell Friends School Archives, of course—where many years of history are recorded and filed and where archivist Lori Hardenbergh is on hand to tell all kinds of fascinating stories. Every year, 3rd grade classes make their way to the Wisconsin Avenue campus, where they have a decision to make: Does Zartman House, the School’s picturesque administration building, belong on the National Register of Historic Places?

In the garden behind the house, Lori explains that buildings have to meet certain criteria to be considered “historic,” and she gets students thinking about the questions they need to ask. Is the building important to American history? Is it connected to prominent people in America’s past? To find out, the students need to learn the history of Zartman House.

They find out that the building is older than they expected. Joseph Nourse, who was the first Register of the Treasury, built the house for his son and daughter-in-law in 1827. Originally called The Highlands, the house became the Nourse family home for many decades. Students are always excited to learn that many interesting people visited the house over the years, including Dolley Madison. But they also hear about a somber side of its history, when they find out that the property’s 130 acres were managed by enslaved people who lived in log cabins behind the house.

After deciding that Zartman House does belong on the National Register of Historic Places, 3rd graders head over to the School Archives, where they draw connections between what they see there and what they know about the National Archives, which is located just a few miles away. They discuss similarities between the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Board of Trustees’ original certificate of incorporation for Sidwell Friends. All are important documents that mark the beginning of a new way of life.

Next, students examine different versions of the School crest, observing that the School name has changed over the years. (Its first name was Friends’ Select School.) They also discover the history of the School motto, “Eluceat omnibus lux,” which was developed by an Upper School Latin class in 1995. Using newly gained knowledge as a clue, students test out the old registrar’s embosser on blank foil seals and determine that it must have been manufactured before the mid-1990s.

Students also study a variety of photographs. Some photos in the archives are particularly special—looking at them through a stereograph viewer turns them into 3D images! Third graders whose parents are Sidwell Friends alumni are in for a special treat at this point, because they’re able to look through their parents’ old yearbooks, often for the first time. “Her hair is so big!” exclaimed one child of an alum.

As the 3rd graders will tell you, nothing beats watching history come to life. On their way back to Bethesda, one student eagerly turned to his teacher. “This field trip was way better than when we went to that ropes course!” he said.

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