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Hands-On History for Teens

“History? Ho-hum.” A spoken or body language response that is every history educator’s nightmare, whether his student is of elementary school, junior high, or college age. How does a decent make the past come alive and resonate relevance to people living now? A group of dedicated and determined docents of the Museum of New Mexico Palace of the Governors, the state history museum located on Santa Fe’s historic plaza, wrestled with this challenge and found a successful solution that can be adapted to other museums and institutions of learning.

In the mid-90’s a handful of Palace docents met with the museum’s educator to discuss their concerns about school children’s limited knowledge and lack of interest in their multicultural, historical heritage. Even high school-aged visitors, on the brink of adulthood, were unaware of the significance of the interaction among the Indian, Spanish, and Anglo/African-American people of New Mexico in shaping the development of what is now the southwestern United States. Names such as Coronado, Esteban, Ofiate, Pope, and Vargas which had been repeatedly drilled by seventh-grade social studies teachers a few years earlier, produced only blank faces denoting unfamiliarity. Nor did most of our charges know that the Palace of the Governors, or Casas Reales (Royal Houses), the construction of which began in 1610, is the oldest continuously used public building in the United States.

As a result of the docents’ observations, SIGLO, a not-exactly-accurate acronym for “Seventh Grade Guided Learning Opportunity, sprang into being. The word sig/o, Spanish for “century,” seemed an appropriate title for the educational program that evolved.

Seventh-grade classes were targeted for several reasons. First, our State Department of Education curriculum guidelines at the time specified that all public school seventh-grade students would take one semester each of the history and geography of New Mexico. We hoped to amplify their curriculum and help teachers meet state competency requirements. Second, most of our field trip visitors were of the elementary school category; seventh-graders appeared to be under-served. Third, we decided that hooking and maintaining the interest of hormone-heavy teenagers during a tour of a historical museum would be the ultimate test of docents’ skill and patience.

Dreamed, Designed, and Delivered

The original version of SIGLO was designed to accompany and supplement the exhibitions “Another Mexico: Spanish Life on the Upper Rio Grande” and “Society Defined: The Hispanic Resident of New Mexico, 1790.” The central theme of each was that Nuevo Mexico, which the conquistadores and first settlers hoped would yield gold and silver like Mexico to the south, was “remote beyond compare.” Day-to-day survival was hard, amenities were few, and faith was an imperative companion.

Ten SIGLO docents, three of whom were retired schoolteachers, met with the educator and/or curatorial staff for several months during the planning phase. The resultant primary goal was for participating students to gain an awareness of how their lives compared to eighteenth-century New Mexican counterparts. How were transportation, formal education (or lack thereof), clothing, work, leisure time, and food then different from or the same as today?

The seed idea for SIGLO originated with Rhoda Barkan — docent and local tourism writer. Rhoda created a fictitious letter, written by Felipe, the 15-year-old literate son of a recently widowed carpenter living on the outskirts of Mexico City in the year 1790. The letter was addressed to a New Mexican teenage cousin who lived in a village near Santa Fe, the Spanish colonial capital of Nuevo Mexico. Felipe, who together with his bereaved father and younger sister Josefina would be migrating north to Santa Fe to make a new life, proffered many questions in his letter. He wanted to know about problems and dangers of travel along the Camino Real (royal road and primary route for the 1600-mile journey), as well as the climate, food, social customs, and type of housing in New Mexico. Our planning team hoped that following their SIGLO experience, students would be able to write an informed letter back to Felipe.

School-Museum Partnership

The effectiveness of SIGLO depended upon communication and cooperation between museum staff, docents, and teachers. After a mass mailing to all seventh-grade social studies teachers throughout New Mexico, those who were interested contacted the museum to schedule SIGLO for their classes. The SIGLO program consisted of four components: Introduction of Letter. Prior to docents visiting the classroom, teachers introduced the letter from Felipe (provided in both English and Spanish) to their students to familiarize them with topics concerning life in eighteenth-century New Mexico. Pre-Museum Visit. Two to four docents made a classroom presentation comprised of a slide show depicting Spanish colonial life and a hands-on activity. The activity is called “Curators’ Quest for Colonial Cues.” Assuming the role of museum curators, groups of 3 or 4 students worked in teams to answer questions about several historical artifacts assigned to them. (Both de-accessioned artifacts from the museum’s collection and reproductions were used.) An antique iron door lock and key, chispa (curved piece of iron used for fire-starting, which produced sparks when struck against a piece of flint) and a drop spindle with sheep wool kept students actively involved. After they identified their objects, determined how they were used, and decided why the objects were important to people of the 1700’s, the participants passed along their artifacts to the other teams. A reporter from each team then informed the entire class as to her group’s findings about the artifacts, demonstrating how to operate them. Additional ideas about the artifacts were solicited from the other class members. At the end of class, the teacher received a SIGLO packet that included a map of the Camino Real in 1800, a portion of an inventory from a will written in 1784, and an artist’s conception of how the Santa Fe plaza looked in the late 1700’s.

Museum Visit. Students visited the Palace of the Governors for a 100-minute SIGLO docent-guided museum experience. Classes were divided into groups of ten students or less. Each group, accompanied by at least one teacher or parent, followed a docent to four locations within the building. Walking along the creaky wooden floors of the 400-year-old structure with its six-foot-thick walls of adobe (mud brick) seemed to help students time-transport back to when the Palace served as ^ presidio (fort). The smell and sound of soldiers’ horses in the courtyard, the hustling activity of government officials attending to colonial business, and even the boisterous play of the governor’s children in residence could be retrieved with a switch of the imagination.

After the decent explained historical concepts represented within a particular room (engaging students with hands-on-artifacts and open-ended questions) pairs of students worked on exhibit-based tasks. By recording notes in their SIGLO journals, they compiled data they would need to complete their post-visit assignment. Below are examples of exhibit tasks: Juana Lujan was a woman of the 1700’s who owned ranches near Santa Fe. List 5 items noted in the inventory of her will. Locate and list 8 items that Felipe’s father would use to build a chest. How/where would he get these things in 1790? Where would he get each of them today? About 100 governors had lived and worked in the Casus Reales by 1912, when New Mexico became the 47th state in the Union. Find and write the name of the person who was governor in 1790. Write down names of two governors whose last names are the same as people you know today. Beside each governor’s name write the first and last name of the person you know with that governor’s last name.

The museum visit finale was sensory. Students sampled bread freshly baked in outdoor adobe ovens by contemporary Pueblo Indian women from villages near Santa Fe. They discovered that at least in the category of edible experiences. New Mexico isn’t so different now that it was centuries ago! Post-Visit Assignment. Back in the classroom, students reconvened in the same groups within which they toured the Palace. Student pairs who worked together in the museum shared the information with the rest of their group so that all students recorded answers to all journal questions. Then, students individually wrote letters to Felipe to describe what their lives were like as Spanish colonial teens in Nuevo Mexico. The teacher sent an evaluation of SIGLO along with copies of students’ letters to the Palace educator in the stamped envelope provided.

SIGLO Revised

The original version of SIGLO continued as an educational program until 1998, when the exhibitions, “Another Mexico” and “Society Defined” were removed. Today a revised SIGLO has been implemented to complement the current exhibition, “Jewish Pioneers of New Mexico.” Palace docents now teach students about nineteenth-century Jewish New Mexicans with surnames such as “Ilfeld” and “Spiegelberg,” in place of the eighteenth-century Spanish names like “Anza” or “Miera y Pacheco.” Visitors learn about the importance of the Old Santa Fe Trail, which opened up trade from the eastern half of the United States to isolated New Mexico.

From the extension of well-established north-to-south commerce along the Camino Real, Jewish merchants capitalized on both American and Mexican business. Eastern manufactured goods as well as the English language and social traditions of the Midwest combined to add a new layer to the rich Hispanic and Native American flavors of New Mexico’s essence. History continues to weave its spell on youth of New Mexico. Docents of the Palace of the Governors, through both the SIGLO program and general tours for families, reach out to grab the attention and curiosity of children in order to plant seeds of interest in history. As Southwestern folklorist J. Frank Dobie once wrote, “I want not only to know about my home land, I want to live intelligently on it. I want certain data that will help me accommodate myself to it. Knowledge helps sympathy to achieve harmony.” Harmony with history beats “Ho-hum” any day.

Penny Gomez, an independent museum education advisor, specializes in docent training and children’s interactive, hands-on programs. Since 1988 museum education has taken her from the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures at San Antonio to the Museum of International Folk Art, the Palace of the Governors, and the School of American Research in Santa Fe.

Gomez, Penny. “Hands-On History for Teens,” The Docent Educator 11.3 (Spring 2002): 10-13.


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