Where history comes off the page

First Posted: 3/12/2013

Clark Switzer’s room looks more like a Hollywood prop master’s warehouse or an antique store than an eighth-grade American History classroom.

Vintage military uniforms, Native American artifacts, colonial ware, early radios and Victrolas, general store items, miners’ tools, maps, photographs, mounted newspaper and magazine clippings line the shelves, walls and display boards of his room at the Wyoming Seminary Day school in Forty Fort where Switzer is in his 36th year teaching American history.

On one of Switzer’s “Living History” days, depending on the era under study, the boys might be dressed in fedoras and double-breasted suits or Irish tweed caps with knickers and suspenders and the girls in flapper dresses and cloche hats, all pulled from the storage room off Switzer’s classroom.

The clothing and displays aren’t just to give the room an American history décor. Switzer, who has been living in West Pittston almost as long as he’s been at Sem, uses his personal collections as teaching tools. When a student can hold a 60-year-old glass Grablick’s Dairy milk bottle in his or her hand, the student can better envision what it was like when milk was delivered to homes with cream filling the neck and better understand the saying “The cream rises to the top.”

When a student can lift a 20-pound chunk of anthracite coal, that student can better imagine what Anthracite breaker boys went through, risking their lives sorting coal in the 1890s through the 1930s.

Switzer makes history come off the page. “I tell them from the first day, history is not in the textbook. What’s in the textbook is to be wrestled with. Who wrote it? Why did they write it? And what about people who don’t have a voice in the textbook? What would they say?”

Switzer breaks up the students’ tour of American history into 10 units from the colonies to mid 1970s. “1675 to 1975 is the focus,” he said. “Each unit is set up on the floor of the classroom with artifacts and photographs.”

Switzer and his students wrestle with questions all along the trail of history. “For example, in the Revolutionary war John Adams was asked to defend the Redcoats after the Boston Massacre,” Switzer said. “So, rule by law or rule by mob? That flows into the Constitution, the Manifest Destiny, the Civil War and immigration which leads to current questions. Do we still have the welcome mat out? Are we still saying ‘give us your tired and poor’ or are we saying enough of that, we have our own tired and poor?”

Referring to World War I, Switzer said, “The Great War brings up big questions which we still wrestle with in 2013: What role should the U.S. have in the world? Can we handle it all? Is it really our responsibility?”

Students are encouraged to consider both sides of the questions. “They go to each side of the room and defend their positions. Or sometimes a student will stay in the middle and say, ‘I can see both sides.’ That’s when I know they are really wrestling with the issues.”

Taking sides on a miners’ strike is a good example. “Here’s a family living on the edge. Dad goes on strike. What are the consequences? Go to this end of room if you would strike and the other end if not. If you don’t, what will the strikers think? And they are your neighbors. But your family needs to eat.”

One of Switzer’s favorite projects deals with immigration. The kids adopt an immigrant to research from the late 1800s and early 1900s. On Immigration Day the students dress in period-appropriate clothing and international Upper School students play the parts of immigration officers. Speaking in their native languages, they give Switzer’s students a taste of what it might have been like for non-English speaking immigrants trying to enter the country.

A question Switzer might pose: “What do you think your great grandfather was doing at this juncture?”

Along the way through the eras, Switzer incorporates local pieces of history.

“We fit the local angle in with every particular period. In the colonial period, the battles between the Connecticut Yankees and Pennamites. All the way though, we have people. Charles Miner in 1828, introducing a slavery bill in the House. William Gildersleeve during the Civil War, moving runaways from Wilkes-Barre to Montrose or hiding them. When we talk technology, where did radio get started? Father Murgas in Wilkes-Barre. Hollywood started in New Jersey then came to Forty Fort with Lyman Howell. Where did HBO start? Where did Planters Peanuts get rolling? What about the Matheson car and the Giant’s Despair Hill Climb?”

Greater Pittston history is incorporated. “The WPA. The kids can see a work from a program that was nationwide that was done here on Eighth Street in the stone walls on the creek and the West Wyoming townhall.”

The Hitchner Biscuit Company in West Pittston, Bone Stadium and baseball Hall of Famers like Bucky Harris are part of the Pittston area history parade. The students go on an annual field trip to walk the Battle of Wyoming grounds. They also tour the Huber Breaker, the last standing anthracite breaker in the county, the Coxton archaeological dig and even Ellis island.

As local history is not in textbooks, Switzer took five years to produce a DVD he calls, “Scratching the Surface, 300 Years of Wyoming Valley History 1675 – 1975.” He and his wife, Debbie, a West Pittston native and Wyoming Area graduate, narrate the movie. A sequel — “Digging Deeper” — is in the works. Though the movie was created as a teaching tool, Switzer presented the movie at the West Pittston Library as a series over several nights, augmented by speakers.

Switzer may have taught the importance of the role of local events in the overall history of the country too well. His students made a map for him, showing Luzerne County as the center of the universe.

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