November 4, 2019
Few names are as synonymous with the Civil War as Gettysburg. For many Americans, Gettysburg is the Civil War – a touchstone of American history that has captured the imagination and interest of the nation since the battle was fought over 150 years ago. Today’s guest, Barbara Sanders, has worked for the National Park Service at the iconic battlefield for nearly twenty years where she’s helped thousands of young visitors learn about the meaning, value and importance of this now peaceful field and the difficult history at Gettysburg. On this week’s PreserveCast we’re taking a trip back to 1863 to talk youth education and Civil War history.
Barbara Sanders has been Gettysburg National Military Park’s Education Specialist since 1999, where she oversees thousands of students visiting the park each year – whether in-person or on virtual field trips. In addition, the park annually offers professional development opportunities for teachers, classroom loan materials and more. Barbara was the educator on the project team for the planning and construction of the visitor center and museum, which included the concept and design for exhibits, films and computer interactive elements. Barbara began her career within the museums of Philadelphia, and she then moved to Washington, D.C. to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from The George Washington University’s Museum Education program. She was recently awarded the National Park Service Northeast Region’s Freeman Tilden Award which recognizes creativity, advancement and ingenuity in the field.
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Few names are as synonymous with the Civil War as Gettysburg. For many Americans, Gettysburg is the Civil War. A touchstone of American history that has captured the imagination and interest of the nation since the battle was fought over 150 years ago. Today’s guest, Barbara Sanders, has worked for the National Park Service at the iconic battle field for nearly 20 years, where she’s helped thousands of young visitors learn about the meaning, value, and importance of this now peaceful field. On this week’s PreserveCast, we’re taking a trip back to 1863 to talk youth education and Civil War history. Barbara Sanders has been Gettysburg National Military Park’s education specialist since 1999 where she oversees thousands of students visiting the park each year whether in person or on virtual field trips. In addition, the park annually offers professional development opportunities for teachers, classroom loan materials, and more. Barbara was the educator on the project team for the planning and construction of the Visitor Center Museum. As well, she began her career within the museums of Philadelphia, and she then moved to Washington, D.C. to earn a masters of arts in teaching degree from the George Washington University. She was recently awarded with the National Park Services Northeastern Region’s Freeman Tilden Award which recognizes creativity, advancement, and ingenuity in the field. And we are so very pleased to have Barbara with us today to talk all things youth education and historic sights.
Welcome to PreserveCast.
Thank you. It’s great to be here.
So what got you into this line of work? Where was your passion for all of this? Did you start with an interest in the Civil War? Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you ended up in this career.
Sure. Well, I was born at the Gettysburg Hospital, which was not called the Gettysburg Hospital at that time. And I went to the school district, public school district, just south of Gettysburg, the Littlestown Area School District and, in fact, used to cut class in high school and come up to the battle field and the National Cemetery and kind of philosophize, ponder, wonder why anybody would be willing to line up shoulder to shoulder and face an enemy. For what reason would anyone do that? So I was just kind of always around the Civil War. Didn’t think about it as a career. As a matter of fact, I started college as a history major but I changed it in the first semester because I didn’t know what you could do with it. And now I realize that there’s just so many things you can do with a history degree. But I did come back around to it. So I studied communication and public relations and did public relations in museums in Philadelphia and then went to cover, in inner city Philadelphia, an artist-in-residence to do a press release. And I just had one of those moments, it was a light bulb moment where I thought, “I don’t want to be the one writing about this. I want to be the one doing the programming.” And so I went to graduate school at the George Washington University, which is one of the few programs in the country for museum education, and at the end of that program, I ended up here at Gettysburg doing a graduate internship and working seven days a week so happily. Five days as a seasonal ranger at the Eisenhower National Historic Site and then two days after that internship was over, doing education contract work with the park’s first education specialist, Joe Onfray, and just loving it. And then was able to, in February of ’99, after he retired, got the position here as education specialist. So that’s a little bit of how I came back around to history.
Yeah, and you’re a true blue Gettysburgian [laughter], born in Gettysburg and almost pre-ordained to be a battlefield interpreter and storyteller [laughter], so what exactly– that all sounds great, and it’s a cool story. What exactly do you do on a day-to-day basis? What does an education specialist at Gettysburg do?
Right. That’s a great question. We get so many people who see us in our National Parks Service Uniform – any position here – and say, “Man, I would love to do your job. And that’s very gratifying because it’s a fantastic job and I hope I never lose sight of how fantastic it is to do something that you love and that you really care about every single day. But the answer is, there’s really no typical day. So it depends on the season, it depends on the day of the week, and it depends on the year. So we have curriculum-based student education programs in the fall and the spring, so a day in the fall and spring might consist of me going out with a group of fourth graders or eighth graders or any one of our 10 programs that we now have. We also do in the winter – well really all school year – virtual programs, whether they’re like Facebook Live broadcasts or one-to-one park ranger to a class. We do a lot of virtual education now. We have teacher workshops in the summer, we do a summer college internship program, we do– it’s just every season is different. There was some years – many years – there where every spare moment that I had was spent in meetings and meetings with exhibit design firm and film making company to create our new museum and visitors’ center. There’s just always something going on. There were a lot of planning meeting leading up to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. Just always something new going on at Gettysburg, so that is one of the joys of the job, is there’s not really a typical day. It’s always changing, always active. And I get to be– I’m lucky enough that I get to be creative. I get to look at the school year ahead and say, “Okay, here’s where I think we need to go with this programming now.” So for example, just this fall, we piloted a new program at Devil’s Den. It’s called a S.T.E.M at Devil’s Den. So it’s taking a look at science, technology, engineering, and math, and how we can apply that because if there are a lot of teachers out there who would love to come on their field trip to Gettysburg. But since social studies, history is not a tested subject, they can rationalize it better if they do it through a science approach. And so we get the history in there through a science and math lens. So that’s something new we’re doing this year.
Yeah. I mean, and it’s interesting when you talk about the programs. And I love that you gave an example of one. Maybe you can give us an example of some other ones that you guys do. But do you have any sense for the numbers that you’re impacting on a yearly basis?
Yeah. I say generally, in a comprehensive curriculum-based way, I think that we hit almost 10,000 students a year, whether it’s onsite or virtually or with family programming in the summer or through materials that we give out at our summer teacher workshops, which is called days with documents, trying to make documents come alive and be cool in the classroom and in the checkout materials that we have. We have a traveling trunk program. The seam now on that is called A Nation at War. And we have a traveling map program that we send out. So I would say we hit almost 10,000 students per year.
And maybe we can talk a little bit about some of those other programs. So the S.T.E.M at Devil’s Den sounds super cool. What other type of programs do you guys do that people might be interested in or sort of typify the kind of work that you do at Gettysburg?
Sure, yeah. We always try to do very, very active experiential programs where the kids are doing something. So they are building a field hospital or they are walking in the footsteps of a specific unit and have the identity of a specific soldier in that unit. Or they’re learning about a character traits such as leadership or courage or something, or they’re doing the farm chores of the Slider family at the base of Big Round Top so that when they find out what happened to that farm in the battle, they understand the loss because they understand that just a little, get a little taste of the work that’s put into that. We have a fairly new program called Citizenship Stories, untold stories from the battle of Gettysburg. And that gets students inside the houses of three very unique individuals who sacrificed a lot for their country but didn’t yet experience the full rights of citizenship.
So we’re able to take our mission to preserve and protect the fields of Gettysburg and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and teach people about it and expand that mission because for a lot of people, schools, families, whatever, if they’re going to look at the civil war, they probably only have time to look at one battle. And so while we do have a mission and we do teach about the battle of Gettysburg, we really teach about the Civil War and the Civil War being that anchor of our entire history, especially with the Gettysburg address, which begins four score and seven years ago talking about 1776 and the declaration of independence. And then the last sentence of the Gettysburg [inaudible] projecting to all future generations. We really can broaden our story out beyond those three days in July.
So it’s both exciting and just overwhelming, right? I mean, because you can tell every story but you also can tell every story.
Right. Exactly. Yeah. Blessing and a curse I guess. But there’s a lot of things we can do and are able to do, but we can broaden out that story but it’s so important to remember the men who fought in this battle and the people who were affected by the battle. So by keeping that focus on the battle and its participants and those who were affected by it, and on the war and the people involved in that and who were affected by it, that’s just as important as broadening out that story.
So you’ve been at this now for 20 years.
Over 20 years, yep.
Yeah. And so you’ve seen, I imagine, this change quite a bit. Let’s talk a little bit about this work over these 20 years because you sort of have this broad experience of how this takes place at a place like Gettysburg and a lot has changed in those 20 years. What do you think is the most challenging aspect of educating kids about the Civil War? I mean, where do you fall in that? What is something that just is really hard to do?
Yes. Well, I’ll tell you. I believe in field trips. I believe in informal education. I remember two things about every year of my schooling. I remember if the teacher liked me or not, so that’s a perception issue, but that’s what I remember. And I can tell you about every field trip or informal experience. And I think these days, especially a history-based field trip is often an ever more and if time and if money proposition. If there’s time at the end of the year, if we have money for the field trip then we’ll do it. And so my biggest challenge really is to try to convince whoever needs the convincing. Often the teachers don’t need to be convinced and the students don’t need to be convinced. Sometimes it’s administration. Sometimes it’s any number of people that the field trip is an integral part of the curriculum and the learning experience. And so that, I believe very, very strongly about. I don’t believe it’s just a day off for kids and teachers. I believe it’s very, very crucial to the school year.
So some changes that I’ve seen through the years are that, again, field trips get cut very quickly. History is not a tested subject so we try to come at it from different angles like STEM or through the language arts and critical thinking, character education, all those kind of entry points. But it’s very often not a tested subject and so there are a lot of schools these days who they don’t teach social studies every day like we used to get when I was going through school. And they don’t teach cursive writing. So if I’m going to do something that is an investigative look at historic documents, that’s been a challenge. Kids today, a lot of times, don’t know how to read cursive writing. And so it’s very difficult to make that historic document that I think is so cool and interesting into an activity and a learning activity and an exciting process. So there has been a lot of change. Those who do come on their field trips, there’s no such thing anymore as what used to be called the extended day bus. In other words, it’s a field trip so we can get back later. Well, now, the buses have to back for dismissal, for sporting events and other things. So teachers have a lot less flexibility for field trips these days than they did in, I would say, the first 10 years that I worked here. And there’s also been a big increase in alternative forms of education. So there’s a spike in homeschooling, we put on a homeschool days every year. We’ve been doing that for years. And this year we advertise to they booked up immediately, we’ve now added two more, and they’re going to book up. So that’s a winter event that we do. So just those are some of the changes that I’ve noticed.
Yeah. So I mean, those are the changes not all good. Some scary ones kind of baked into that answer but what is the I mean, that being said, there’s also been some really big changes in technology and just with the way kids like you say like kids don’t learn cursive anymore. So what is the is there a different way are there is there a way that you feel like you’re succeeding in reaching this generation when you’re talking about history and educate history and historic sites in the Civil War, like, what’s the best way that you feel to reach them? Or is it still the same?
Oh my gosh that is I think, a lot of ways it’s still the same. It’s establishing a connection. Why this should be important irrelevance a story and an individual person. Sometimes I think the technology might be helpful. It’s not always helpful. So I don’t think museum literacy is a thing that a lot of young people have or develop anymore. And so if they have to go through– if they go through the museum, let’s say you create something so that you have different technologies within the museum to pull them in to get to that story. A lot of times they’ll pull out their cell phone take a picture of a old school artifact case with the exhibit labels because they know they can find that answer on that photograph later on. So I don’t dismiss technology by any means, but I think sometimes we catered too much I think towards making something techie for the sake of it.
Well, let me ask you about that and kind of follow up on that. So you’re talking about them walking around the museum, they take a I like that. You said they took a picture of an old school museum case. What about I mean, Gettysburg has a lot of other places have it all the touchscreens and this and that. Does it work? Or is it just something that you like you play around with for a second then keep walking?
Yeah, I think now I say that and I say those things. But there again, I also see a lot of what I call the Civil War kids. They’re every class that comes here they’re three or four kids who are just really into the Civil War and really into history, and they, every other kid knows it. And they’re really, really excited about it. And so it might have been a gaming system, or it might have been a visit somewhere may have been any number of things that first got them into history. So different things in the museum, like we have a signal flags, game type interactive in our museum, that definitely pulls people in, I think you have to have the balance. In a good museum exhibit. You have to have some of that. You have to have some audio. You have to have some films here and there, but you also have to have the artifact that connects to a personal story, or that connects to a specific event, or that tells that story. I think you have to have a good balance. So I think it can work in balance with other things.
Yeah. No. I mean, I think it makes sense. And I think that all of what you’re describing and sort of this balance, particularly with the changes in education, the changes in just technology, changes in kids, and what schools have an appetite for. So kind of beyond just education in general, you’ve been now at Gettysburg for 20 years, what big changes do you feel like you’ve seen at Gettysburg in that period?
Well, there’s always things changing at Gettysburg [laughter], that’s for sure. So first and foremost is we now have this big beautiful museum and visitor center that assures that our artifact collection is safe and will be here for generations to come. And also, displays those artifacts in a way that tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg and its aftermath, of President Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address within the context of the entire civil war and the civil war within context of all of American history. So that’s really been, I think, the biggest change that I’ve seen since I’ve been here. Also, more and more, as mentioned earlier, opportunities for distance learning. So not everybody can get here in person right now. So whether at schools or other ways, we’re always trying to involve people who are on site so that maybe someday they can get here. So that means we need technology that will enable people who are not here on site to still learn directly from the resource, just to be able to go out on the battlefield and learn directly from the monuments, learn directly from the landscape, feel like they have been here, or ignite a spark of interest to want to come here or want to help to care for this place. That’s really what my job is is to ignite that spark of interest. And so– well, I know that technology is out there. A struggle of mine is we got to keep up with it, and we have to find a way to be able to incorporate that as best we can within a school or even a general public audience.
So if you were given–
This is some of the changes.
Yeah. No. Absolutely. And I mean, kind of along those lines and those changes and everything that you’ve seen and your long experience doing this, if you were giving advice to someone thinking about starting a youth education program, their historic site, what will be one of the first things that you would tell them to consider? Or perhaps, examples of other sites that you would want them to take a look at, or that you think are doing a particularly good job.
Right. Okay. So I would say if you were going to be starting a youth education program, that you should take the approach of looking at learning across the lifespan. That’s how I was taught. That’s what I try to do. So I try to think, “Okay. How can we get preschoolers to understand what history is and what a long, long time ago means? How can we get not to–” I think a lot of places will go right for the elementary school audience, and they’ll just count perhaps middle and high school because middle and high school students sometimes they get a bad rap, I think. They get really, really into it. So look at college students. We do some distance learning now with other countries. We do some with some retirement communities. So look at education as learning across the lifespan, and look at how all of those different age levels learn and learn differently. And they often say for teachers that teachers teach in the way that they best learn. And so that’s a real challenge. Sometimes you need to try to do something that’s not as comfortable when you’re planning programming or planning events or planning exhibits that’s less comfortable for you so that you can build a connection with those people.
So I would say target all ages. Don’t discount middle and high school. Constantly ask yourself, “What will they be doing at this point in their visit? What will that student be doing? What will that family be doing?” Not, “What will I be telling them,” but, “What will they be doing and experiencing?” And I would just say as far as school programming or youth programming, that enthusiasm is key. So if you ask any teacher or ask any student in the thousands of letters that I’ve gotten from student groups and evaluations from teachers, that’s always the key thing is the enthusiasm of the person facilitating their experience. So when you stop loving what you do and how you do it, you’ve got to rethink it so that you love it, because that spreads through your audience.
Yeah. And I was going to say, and I should have said this up front. But in the interest of full disclosure, I was a seasonal park ranger that had the opportunity to work with Barb. And I can say that of everyone that I’ve ever worked with, no one could ever claim you lack enthusiasm [laughter].
Well, that is so nice. Thank you [laughter]. Because you don’t see me every day, but that’s [crosstalk].
No. No. I know I don’t. And you probably just go home and collapse after all of that enthusiastic interpreting [laughter]. So any good books? What do you read? What should people take a look at?
Okay. First of all, most of your audience probably has heard of Freeman Tilden and Interpreting our Heritage, which is the standard, the Bible. And I think there’s just everything in there is still relevant. Everything in there is still relevant. So definitely pick that back up if you can. Also, in graduate school, we studied– Falk and Dierking are the researchers. I forget if it’s Lynn Falk and John Dierking or the other way around. But they did a series of studies. One was called The Museum Experience, I think, and they’ve re-looked at it, and so now it’s out. It’s called The Museum Experience Revisited. And I always remember some of the good work that they did. For example, they did studies on what was called the novel field trip phenomenon, which looked at if a student is prepared, if they know what they’re going to be doing on their field trip, then they spend their brain power building on that knowledge rather than looking around and orienting themselves and trying to figure that out. So just very basic key things like that are so interesting. But the books that I most want to recommend [laughter] are these books. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them. I know you have a daughter so you probably have. But there are these series of books by Brad Meltzer. There’s one called I Am Abraham Lincoln.
Yes, I’ve read it about 400 times.
He’s got new ones out about I Am Neil Armstrong [laughter]. He’s got I Am Lucille Ball. I wish I would have come up with that whole series. We’ve been in touch with Mr. Meltzer before we read his books at our Winter Reading Adventure series, and I just love them. I just love those books however old that I am [laughter]. I just think they’re a wonderful way to introduce history and important characters from our American past and our world past at a very young age. And the illustrator that he works with– I mean, it’s never too young to get people to think about, understand, and respect those that came before. So I just love that series.
Great answers. And now the most difficult question, what is your favorite historic place or site?
All right, okay. All right. You want to know within the United States?
Or can this be global? All right.
This could be anywhere.
Well, just this spring, I went to England for the first time. You may recall that I am a big Beatles fan.
I think I remember something about that.
Yes [laughter]. I toured the John Lennon and Paul McCartney childhood homes in Liverpool, England. And it was amazing because you’re not looking into rooms. You’re not looking through glass. You are walking all through. So that. I’m a reader because of a man named James Herriot. I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. He was a veterinarian in England. He wrote All Creatures Great and Small and a series of books about being a vet in the Yorkshire Dales in the pre-World War II, post-World War II era. And his home where he had to practice is a museum and historic site as well. So I also visited that on that trip. So I’m all about England right now with my historic places.
Fantastic answer. I wouldn’t expect anything less.
But I also wanted to– I want to say one more thing since this is a Preservation Maryland thing. So both of my parents are from Maryland. They met in Maryland. They first lived in Maryland, and so the house that they first lived in was my dad’s parents’ in Westminster, Maryland. It’s now a bed and breakfast, and I went back there under the guise of looking around the bed and breakfast. And so that’s one of my favorite historic sites too. That’s a personal history site right there.
Well, a fantastic connection to [laughter] the host organization here and a fantastic interview in general [laughter]. It’s so good to hear from you and so good to know that the education in Gettysburg remains in fantastic hands.
Oh, thank you.
Thank you for all you do, Barbara. It’s great talking with you.
Great talking with you, Nick. [music]
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