When you think of immigration, what places come to mind? Ellis Island and the tenements of Manhattan’s lower east side? Southwest border states like Texas and California? Florida? Maybe Chicago? How about San Francisco’s Chinatown, or the Irish neighborhoods of south Boston?
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that Hartford, Connecticut didn’t make your top ten list.
If so, then you are not alone. When I started planning my course on immigration about eight years ago, I don’t think Hartford made my top fifty list – and I was teaching the course in Hartford!
As I first developed it, my course focused on various national events: the legislative history of immigration in the US, the history of Ellis Island and Angel Island, and significant movements related to labor, war, civil rights, and other issues.
It was, if I may say so, a good course. But then something happened to change my approach to teaching.
In the summer of 2009, I attended a week-long National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop in Cleveland that introduced me to an approach I would later learn to call “place-based education.” In the workshop, we learned about immigration and migration to Cleveland and then experienced those lessons in context through various site visits to community centers, places of worship, and museums, and to neighborhoods that illustrated the layers of immigration still visible in the architecture and re-purposing of buildings. I found it to be one of the most engaging and effective learning experiences of my life.
I thought, if learning immigration in Cleveland can be this effective, why not in Hartford?
With the support of the NEH, I began a course of study with a dozen of my colleagues at Capital Community College that we call the Hartford Heritage Project, an initiative that enables faculty to adopt a place-based approach to teaching in just about any discipline.
As its name implies, place-based education is an approach to teaching that puts learning in the context of local resources. The HHP introduced faculty to the rich history and cultural value of resources around our downtown Hartford campus to enable us to incorporate those resources into our curriculum.
As a result, my immigration course is now radically different from its first incarnations. Now, my students learn about the first major immigrant groups to Hartford and the waves of immigrants who followed, and through readings, we link those stories with national narratives. I invite a historian from nearby Trinity College to conduct a seminar on the religious climate in 19th century puritan Hartford when the Irish and Italians began arriving in large numbers, and we walk over to St Patrick/St Anthony church for a tour. We visit the servants’ quarters at the Mark Twain House and the Butler McCook House to see where immigrants—usually Irish women—were employed and to link these places with readings from other parts of the country.
For their research projects, students learn to use the archives at such places as the Hartford History Center, Jewish Historical Society, and Connecticut Historical Society. They learn about the arrival of the Polish, Lithuanians, and the Russian Jews, the African American migrants and Caribbean workers in the Connecticut tobacco fields, and the influx of Puerto Rican migrants. They visit the Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Center for a contemporary look at immigration in our city.
In each case, I tie the topics and lessons into the curriculum I previously taught. But now everything has a tangible quality for the students, and for me. We stand in the rooms and walk the halls of people who have come before us. We feel history. The streets of Hartford have more meaning for us. What we read in the textbook now takes on flesh and blood—and brick and mortar.
On the Hartford Heritage website, video interviews with students reveal the impact of this place-based approach. A woman named Rosa, herself an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, talks about how she had no idea that “this country was built by immigrants” who came before her. She describes how the streets and buildings of Hartford now speak to her about the struggles of people, many of them immigrants, who came before her. She says emphatically, “We belong to Hartford, so we need to know about it.”
“We belong” – that’s a lesson a place-based approach can deliver.
Jeffrey F. L. Partridge is Professor of English, Chair of Humanities, and Director of the Hartford Heritage Project at Capital Community College. Dr. Partridge also serves on the board of CT Humanities.
Banner image: Intersection of Anne and Asylum Streets circa 1900-1930. Note Chinese restaurant and pool room with words in Greek. Image courtesy of the Hartford History Center