Turn Local History into Advocacy with Three Different Writing Projects

One of my biggest challenges as a teacher is getting students to feel connected to history. To them, especially at the middle school age, history might as well be the Milky Way– kids are told that it’s real and that they are a part of it, but the scope of history often has such galactical boundaries that it seems to have no gravitational connection to the terrestrial, tangible present.

Enter: local history. When I first considered incorporating local history into my classes, I worried it would provide too finite a focus within my curriculum. What if students lost sight of the larger movements we were studying? However, just the opposite turned out to be true. Studying local history, and, more specifically, people who have lived in our local area, has allowed students to connect historical movements and ideas to their physical world.

There are hundreds of ways that you could incorporate local history into your English or social studies classes. Here’s how Rebekah O’Dell and I have leaned on one local resource to create three different major writing projects in ours:

The Virginia Holocaust Museum (VHM) is a red-brick building situated on top of rambling cobblestones in downtown Richmond. The design of the museum– from is adjacency to old train tracks to the functioning synagogue inside– serves as a symbolic reminder about the Holocaust to its visitors.

Before the pandemic, Rebekah and I brought our students to the VHM every year as the culminating point of our joint unit on WWII and the Holocaust. It has been a fantastic resource for our students and the Virginia community. They are currently open again and hosting fantastic tours for groups smaller than 40– we can’t recommend visiting them enough!

Like most museums, the VHM has a digital archives. In 1997, historians, curators, and volunteers at the VHM began digitizing Holocaust survivor testimonies. Now, the museum hosts 230 survivor testimonies— almost all of whom ended up in Richmond or Virginia.


In these testimonies we found not only the local history sources we were looking for, but also a problem that needed to be solved. Many of the testimonies are 2+ hours in length, conducted using (albeit state-of-the-art for the time) old-fashioned cameras, and narrated by survivors for whom English is their second, third, or even fourth language. In short, very few members of the public would ever be motivated to watch these, despite the richness of the text and their historical value.

This led us to our central question, which has motivated all of annual VHM writing projects: how can our students retell the stories of Virginia survivors of the Holocaust in a more public-facing, accessible way that will also meet their classroom needs?

#1: Narrative podcast

What the students needed: A unique, technically simple writing medium that would allow them to develop their historical synthesis and organizational skills.

Task: Retell the survivor’s experience in the student’s own words in a 5-15 minute podcast episode.

Mentor texts:

  • Lore, hosted by Aaron Mahnke
  • And this episode I made to give students a complete example of what a final product might look like

Instructional Goals:

  • Determine importance from a huge primary source
  • Write a comprehensive narrative of the survivor’s experience from beginning to end
  • Synthesize the survivor’s experience with the historical context of WWII and the Holocaust
  • Connect personally with the survivor’s experience

Check out some of the final products on Season 6 of our student-centric podcast, Use Your Words, or find them on the VHM’s Virginia survivor page!

#2: Biographical Encyclopedia Entry

What the students needed: A formal, straightforward piece of writing that would challenge their chronological thinking and strengthen their research skills.

Task: Create a biographical encyclopedia entry on a Virginia survivor of the Holocaust.

Encyclopedia Virginia mentor texts:

An incredible thanks to Encyclopedia Virginia (EV) for all of their help in teaching Rebekah and I how a biographical encyclopedia entry is made. We could not have completed this project with our students without the guidance of their team. If you’ve never used EV, do not sleep on this fantastic content-based resource for secondary humanities teachers!

Instructional Goals:

  • Generate an expository, well-researched piece of writing
  • Synthesize the survivor’s experience with the historical context of WWII and the Holocaust
  • Develop chronological reasoning skills
  • Determine importance from a huge primary source
  • Connect personally with the survivor’s experience

Some of our students final products can be viewed on this interactive map:

#3: Graphic Novel Scene

What the students needed: A writing medium that would get them out of their comfort zone and force them to think creatively, while still relying on historical context.

Task: Create a graphic novel-style illustration of a scene from a VHM survivor’s testimony.

Mentor texts:

Instructional Goals:

  • Visually conceptualize a primary source
  • Develop organizational skills
  • Synthesize the survivor’s experience with the historical context of WWII and the Holocaust
  • Determine importance from a huge primary source
  • Connect personally with the survivor’s experience

We’re wrapping up this project as I hit the publish button, so we don’t have any true final products from students yet. Here are some of their works in progress:

Next Steps:

  1. Find a local resource with whom you can partner. Local museums or historical societies are great places start. None of our work on these projects for the past three years would have ever been possible without the team at the Virginia Holocaust Museum!
  2. Consider what your students need (both in terms of content and skill development) and what kind of historical writing might serve those needs.
  3. Ask yourself: Whose story needs to be told or shared within my community?

If you’ve ever worked with local historical organizations in your community, write them in the comments! We would love to collect as many local resources for teachers to reach out to as possible.

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