Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Youth Historians in Harlem: Exploring the Possibilities in Collaborative History Research Between Local Youth and Scholars (Part 1 of 2)

March 6th, 2015 by

This is Part 1 of a two-part series by Barry M. Goldenberg focusing on methodological questions sparked by the Youth Historians in Harlem project. This Education’s Histories series will continue throughout 2015.

 “Flipping” the Script on Historical Knowledge: A Youth-Led Walking Tour

For three weeks, seven high school students, Ansley Erickson (Teachers College, Columbia University) and I strategized about creating a historical “walking tour” of Harlem for a small graduate class.1 However, there would be one caveat—local high school students in Harlem would be positioned as the resident tour guides and historical experts. The goal was for high school youth to lead an informational tour around the neighborhood, helping graduate students link their readings to the specific spatial context in which the history had unfolded. In preparatory sessions, as a group, we discussed elements of a walking tour, made decisions on how to design the tour as a history of young people in Harlem, and most importantly, chose seven spots or areas in Harlem (one space or place for each student) to present during the walk.

Youth Historians in Harlem - Walking Tour 1

One of the Youth Historians pointing out to both his peers and graduate students the significance of this particular street corner on 135th Street and Lenox Avenue, nicknamed “The Campus,” which served as an iconic speaking location for African-Americans leaders such as Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. Photograph and caption by Barry M. Goldenberg. Personal collection.

Youth Historians in Harlem - Walking Tour 2

Another Youth Historian student explaining to the group the history and architecture of Wadleigh High School, one of the oldest public schools in New York City, as well as discussing his current experiences attending a co-located school in this same building. Photograph and caption by Barry M. Goldenberg. Personal collection.

It was this final task where our collaboration first confronted some initial tensions, challenging notions of hierarchy and authority within the norms of the typical teacher-student relationship. Despite my constant plea that students select spaces in Harlem that might have been significant to young people, they were reluctant to do so. I had hoped they would identify places beyond the well-known and famous, using their perspectives as young people to remind us to look for the places that mattered in students’ daily lives, such as popular historical after-school student hangouts. Although students’ lack of exhaustive knowledge of Harlem’s history was a barrier, they also had difficulty identifying their own ideas as valid in comparison to what had, elsewhere, been validated as the most important places in Harlem. Furthermore, students expressed apprehension about stepping into the role of an oral “storyteller,” weaving together both the history of the place and their own lived experiences—essentially, shifting the historical narrative within this (new) teacher-student context.

We ended up deciding on an eclectic list of stops that reflected our shared opinions. Whereas I thought mostly about specific buildings, the students also suggested broader spaces, which reflected their lived experiences in Harlem. For example, during the tour one student discussed 125th Street and how it once served as an iconic location for restaurants, shops, and entertainment for youth. He also talked about how this space still serves as an important place in Harlem for youth today, which he elaborated on during the walking tour, beyond his notes and rehearsal sessions. Our richest preparatory discussions occurred when we discussed how to highlight students’ points of view, in hopes of making the tour more valuable and engaging for the graduate students in ways that Alan Peshkin and others have long advocated for.2 For instance, during the tour, one student presented the history of the public housing project where he lives close to Columbia, commenting on the history of the space and his own experiences feeling excluded from the University and its adjacent, more affluent, housing structure.

In practice, the walking tour “flipped the script” as high school students taught graduate students about Harlem’s educational history. The dialectic exchanges between high school students and graduate students blurred the lines of hierarchy in who possesses historical knowledge, in what forms this knowledge is shared, and in what setting—also forcing me to re-assess my own assumptions about the exchange of knowledge more broadly. For decades, Hayden White has argued that the history discipline is closer to the literary tradition than the social sciences, and in doing so, that histories are actually “verbal fictions” which are more closely tied to the author’s imagined narrative then any set of established “facts.”3 White’s push against the traditional orthodoxy of how we, as scholars, codify knowledge became apparent during the walking tour. Students’ constructed narratives of Harlem’s history and its relation to their own lived experiences as youth were no less “historical” than those of established scholars—at least as internalized by the graduate students, many of them pre-service teachers, who were learning about Harlem’s educational history for the first time. Thus, by taking on the role as teachers and tour guides, students challenged the discipline’s acceptance that knowledge can only be created by credentialed historians. Although historical accuracy, on its most basic level, remains important, events like a walking tour lend nuance to notions of legitimacy in historical research, particularly around oral displays of perceived knowledge (or lack thereof) by the historical “storyteller.”4 Furthermore, similar experiences also underscore the role that other factors—such as personal feelings, perspectives, and social power—can play in exchanges of historical information. Education scholars from other disciplines have illustrated the benefits of pre-service teachers learning from youth, and there is no reason this principle should not be engaged by historians of education.5 In the case of the walking tour, having high school students step into the role of teachers enriched graduate students’ understanding of young people in Harlem’s rich history. Pedagogically, preparing and leading the tour helped authorize the high school students as knowers, researchers, and teachers of historical knowledge—a necessary intellectual belief among students and starting point for more in-depth collaborative research later in the year.

Building on the Past: Origins of the Youth Historians in Harlem (YHH) Project

Students who participated in the walking tour were part of Youth Historians in Harlem (YHH)—a project that developed out of my particular graduate student context. As a historian in training and a doctoral student in History and Education at Teachers College, I am primarily concerned with producing new scholarship and historical knowledge. Yet, I also participate in another methodological tradition that informs my work (and my interest) with young people: Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), a research framework that centers youth as capable knowledge producers and agents of change by having them participate in social justice-themed research, particularly in ways that “break down the barriers between the researcher and the researched.”6 As I thought about weaving these two different contexts of history and YPAR together, a compelling line of inquiry arose: how can young people participate in the production of historical knowledge, particularly in the history of education?7

For the past two years, I have worked with local public high school students in an after-school program in a small high school in Harlem. The program encouraged students to discuss history beyond the textbook, introducing them to scholarly research practices that enabled them to learn the history of their Harlem neighborhood by using “the city as [a] teacher,” with a goal of becoming “critical public historians.”8 By “critical,” I wanted to students to not only be able to understand history as a source of knowledge or information, but as a source of identity that could be both internalized and shared with others in their community. Students benefited both academically and socially; for example, YHH helped students develop their public speaking skills, learn how to navigate archives and collegiate settings, and perform basic research online. Students also demonstrated an increased interest in history and a sense of empowerment as emerging “scholars.”9

I benefited as well. Helping these high school students find historical sources, read and interpret them, and learn about Harlem improved my thought processes as a scholar. I began to develop a more nuanced understanding of Harlem in the present as it pertained to education—what interested students, the significance of their family histories, and their challenges living and learning in the neighborhood. Participating in historical dialogue with high school students about their present-day perspectives of Harlem also led me to think about my research methodologies. I was reminded of what Joyce Appleby wrote over a decade ago: that historians must “make more salient the embeddedness of history in the present,” and that doing so can help us “view the whole from a different angle of vision.”10 Working with local youth, I realized, could provide a new contextual portal through which to create, and examine, historical questions about education.

Exploring a Collaboration Between Local Youth and Historians of Education

This academic year, the students and I will work together on a broad-scale original research project on the history of education in Harlem. Before jumping into a yearlong collaborative research project, however, I wanted to first create a “bridge” connecting students’ previous years work to our new focus on collaboration and original research where their voices would be centered—the youth-focused Harlem walking tour served this purpose. The current group consists of six African-American and two Latino males of varying academic skill sets; seven of them are returning 12th grade students who previously participated in the program, and one is a new 11th grade student. Each student volunteers to meet twice a week for two hours at Teachers College, Columbia University. The topic of our collective inquiry is a school called Harlem Prep that existed from 1967 to 1975 and is generally absent from the historical record. Holding classes in an old supermarket, Harlem Prep was an independently financed “community school” that served former high school dropouts, recovering drug addicts, Vietnam War veterans, older adults, and other non-traditional students. Even with limited resources and a challengingly diverse population, the school sent hundreds of students to college, including many dozens to highly selective institutions.

This year’s collaboration involves three phases. In the first, planning phase, students and I devise a research strategy and compelling historical questions for the year, as well as learn the historical context of Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s based on my preliminary research on Harlem Prep. In the second, research phase, students learn oral history methodology and prepare to conduct oral history interviews with Harlem Prep alumni.11 Finally, in the third, dissemination phase, we will create digital exhibits (using Omekacontent management system and Neatline plug-in) to share our oral history interviews with both the general public (particularly the Harlem community) and the scholarly community, as well as hold a year-end event where we present our collaborative research-in-progress together at Teachers College, Columbia University.

This project faces unanswered questions not only about historical content but about the conceptual and methodological underpinnings of historical practice. In two subsequent essays, I will explore the opportunities and tensions involved when scholars work with youth apprentices in genuinely collaborative ways:12

  1. When historians and local youth conduct historical research together, how does their work challenge notions of hierarchy and authority and/or complicate ideas about legitimate knowledge?
  2. How do processes of historical research shift, and responsibilities change, when creating history with students via online digital formats?

I approach these questions with a sense of playfulness and a necessary comfort with the unknown. As sociologist Norman Denzin writes:

Since one can be trained only in what is already known, training sometimes incapacitates one from learning new ways; it makes one rebel against what is bound to be at first loose and even sloppy. But you cling to such vague images and notions, if they are yours, and you must work them out. For it is in such forms that original ideas, if any, almost always first appear.13

Denzin’s poignant explanation can, and should, apply to scholars in history. As historians of education often located within colleges of education, we have a unique opportunity to probe for new methodologies by working with youth. Our affinity for studying the education histories of students offers the possibility to research with them, in ways that might be less then optimal for historians located outside colleges of education. Karen Graves recently reminded readers about shrinking opportunities for historians of education and how we must better elucidate the importance of our field in colleges of education with the increased pressures on the liberal arts in an era of school reform.14 Projects like Youth Historians can help answer her call to action—researching history with local youth allows us to remain true to our discipline while also contributing to the lives of students through tangible hands-on work that is needed in education today.15 Within this context, and as we proceed into our collective inquiry on Harlem Prep, I hope to spark a dialogue about the many untapped synergies among historians of education, historical research, and local youth.

Barry M. Goldenberg is a Ph.D. student in the History and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME). Outside of exploring youth-scholar collaborations through his Youth Historians program, Barry’s historical research examines educational activism in Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s.He can be reached at The author would like to thank Professor Ansley Erickson for not only graciously helping to construct and then revise, this manuscript, but for all her support and guidance on a day-to-day basis with the Youth Historians project. Without her help and her co-direction, the Youth Historians project, and this manuscript, would not be possible. In addition, thank you to the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME), particularly Professor Ernest Morrell and Veronica Holly, for providing the resources, encouragement, and initial spark for this project. Finally, thank you to each of the high school student participants for making this collaboration come to fruition.

Campbell Scribner of Ohio Wesleyan University and Michael Suarez of the University of Colorado at Boulder served as peer reviewers for this essay. Education’s Histories is grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this essay.



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