As a middle school social studies teacher in Northfield, Earl Weinmann tries to help his students see that they have the power to shape the places they live.
Four years ago, 10 of his students embarked on a project that would let them leave their mark on the city: They began writing a 43-chapter textbook chronicling Northfield’s history.
This fall, “Our Story: A Guide to the History of Northfield, Minnesota” was finally published.
The book, sold at the Northfield Historical Society and used in third-grade classrooms across the district, demonstrates that, with a little help from the community, eighth-graders are capable of being historians and writing a high-quality textbook.
“I feel a lot of times we tend to underestimate students’ contributions to a town, a city, a community,” said Weinmann.
Through the project, the students “learned not only about historical research and writing, they became invested in Northfield history as well,” he said.
The book was written as part of SCOPE (Student Community Outreach Program Experience), a program Weinmann created for gifted-and-talented eighth-graders. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, SCOPE students spent two periods a day — along with occasional Saturdays and Sundays — at the Northfield Historical Society, interviewing, researching and penning chapters that would be part of “Our Story.”
“My goal is that they’re writing and researching at a high school level … before they leave the program,” Weinmann said.
Before “Our Story” was written, “No one had ever stepped up to write the history of Northfield — it just had not been done,” said Chip DeMann, a local historian who manages the historical society’s museum store.
Though Northfield history is taught in third grade, teachers didn’t have a book to use, Weinmann said.
Now there are 300 copies of “Our Story” in Northfield classrooms. Teachers from other districts who visit the historical society are often impressed with the book, DeMann said.
“I don’t think anyone anticipated how good the students would do on this project,” Weinmann said.
When the project began, Weinmann helped students brainstorm a list of possible chapters to include.
The book is organized somewhat chronologically, with chapters covering topics that impacted the city.
Some are about places, like Carleton and St. Olaf colleges, the Ames Mill and the Northfield Senior Center, while others are on notable people, including John and Ann North, founders of Northfield. Groups like the Boy and Girl Scouts have chapters, as do events, such as the infamous Northfield bank raid by Jesse James and his gang.
Finding true sources
The first year, Weinmann worked with four students, and the next year, six students participated. Each student wrote four or five chapters, and students also edited each other’s work, Weinmann said.
Though Weinmann encouraged them to work independently, they did have help from Carleton students, who taught them about research methods.
“We learned a lot about how to … filter through the information and find the true sources, rather than the ones people make up,” said Sandra Carson, a senior who worked on the project in 2009-10.
Carson wrote chapters on Bridge Square, a town gathering space, and the Laura Baker School, which serves students with special needs. The project taught her to stay on task and motivate herself, she said.
DeMann, whose family has lived in Northfield since the 1850s, was another resource, advising students on early forms of transportation and hospitals.
He also drove students to and from the historical society for free, since he manages a transportation company.
“It’s just been a wonderful thrill to work with these kids,” DeMann said. “They’re so talented.”
A lesson in writing
Ian Iverson, a senior who worked on the project in 2009-10, said it taught him about writing concisely.
Writing for third-graders “posed a real challenge,” he said. “But I think we were able to include what needed to be included without overwhelming them.”
Some topics lent themselves to interesting chapters more than others, Weinmann said. “Anytime we had a challenging subject, we used a different way to tell the story,” he said.
Thus, the chapter on KYMN, the local radio station, was written as a call-in show, and the chapter on Northfield’s founders became a play, he said.
A self-described “big history buff,” Iverson later interned at the historical society for two summers. The project showed him “what history looks like as a career,” he said.
And that’s one of Weinmann’s goals — to make history come alive, instead of being seen as “some dry, dusty book sitting on some top shelf, inaccessible to them,” he said.
Weinmann has started several programs to get students engaged with the historical society, including one that has them working as tour guides.
“Historical societies tend to be made up of older people. … But we have all kinds of young people involved in our historical society,” said DeMann. “These young people are our incredible secret weapon.”