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History reimagined — WHS educators make history personal with innovative new course

student looking at laptop screen

Students in Brandon Harle's Your Story: History of Immigration class connect with Erika Manternach with over zoom to glean tips on conducting family history interviews.

For the last six years, Wenatchee High School Social Studies teacher Brandon Harle and his department have worked to create a variety of social studies course offerings for students to complete their graduation requirements. The department has reimagined learning using an innovative approach to develop new and interesting courses that are relevant and appeal to students. One such course, Your Story: History of Immigration, departs from traditional learning and takes a deep dive into history by making it personal. 

Harle saw how intrigued his students were when connecting historical topics with real life. Inspired by this, he began creating a class that would integrate genealogy and historical knowledge with researching, writing, and interviewing. “I designed the course with the idea that as students investigate and research their own family history, we can connect the events that have occurred [in history] to moments in their family's past,” said Harle. 

Departing from traditional book learning and backed by research that shows students have higher levels of engagement and better recall through project-based learning, Harle applied a more “hands-on” approach to the class. “I've grown tired of seeing students with the best memory system get the best grades. History and social studies is not memorization and dates.” 

During the course, students will learn about American and Contemporary history focusing on migration and immigration from indigenous settlements to current laws and issues related to immigration. They’ll learn research techniques, apply journalistic interviewing methods and use video and audio tools to document their family history going back as far as 5-6 generations. 

Offered for the first time last spring, there was enough interest for five sections of the course this fall. Harle and colleague Becki Molitor, who share a passion for genealogy, spent the summer collaborating with teams from, the Tenement Museum, a teacher in Florida that created a similar project, and faculty from the University of California-Berkeley's Graduate school of Journalism to generate ideas. To get the students started on their projects this fall, Harle and Molitor enlisted Erika Manternach, writing team manager with and a former English teacher and broadcaster, to provide their students with expert tips on conducting family history interviews. “One of the greatest gifts you can give another is a genuine curiosity about their life, said Mantrnach during a Zoom session with Harle’s class. “They feel seen and recognized for their resilience, talents, and contributions.”

Harle was awarded a Reinventing Education Grant from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to support the new course. The grant is intended to fund and study innovative learning models different from the traditional pre-pandemic model. OSPI hopes to identify practices to support the continued transformation of the education system and inform future policy and funding decisions. Harle is using the seed money from OSPI to build a curriculum, purchase audio and video equipment for video production, and fund experts from the field to give classroom presentations and support.

Harle and Molitor will continue to partner with experts from the field and host classroom speakers throughout the course to help students as they investigate their family history. “We have a great start, and we are excited about all the opportunities,” said Harle.





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