By Catherine Hagerman Pangan
September 14, 2021
Eleven years ago when my son was in Kindergarten, he came home from a field trip and said, “Mom! You have to check out this amazing place we visited!” That summer, my son introduced me to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and I was hooked! As an elementary science and social studies education professor at Butler University, now my undergraduate students get to experience the unique relationship to history the house inspires.
When my education students realize they get to have class in a president’s home, it piques their interest. Some remember the house when they were young learners, but most are not sure what to expect. Before our visit, they complete a “Six Degrees of Separation” activity where they root around to explore personal connections to Benjamin Harrison. Some find that they were in the same fraternity as President Harrison, many are shocked to discover that the top floor used to be a dormitory for past Butler students. The excitement builds for our visit!
Cue Roger Hardig, vice president of education, who not only welcomes the future educators with his outgoing and warm demeanor, but shares personal stories of being an education major himself, and what brought him to the site for a career. To engage the students from the beginning, Mr. Hardig shares two letters written to US presidents, one to Eisenhower and one to Jimmy Carter. These letter were written by children and they spur powerful discussions about historical eras, people, and personal connections to leadership. The activity also reinforces Ken Burns’ quote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” It provides a dynamic lens for my college level learners to get their creative juices flowing for their future classrooms.
We then experience the interactive workshop, “Coming to America” from a teacher and student perspective. We simulate the activity by building background knowledge through primary resources, find our “new identities” from an adapted ship’s manifest, create passports, and explore aspects of traveling across the ocean from different economic statuses. Mr. Hardig emphasizes the connection to today’s immigration and how to develop rich conversations with students by using the past.
The home tour is next and as my students have commented, it is not your boring “old dead guy” tour, but a transformative experience that expands their ideas about how to make history come to life for their future students. Thanks to the vibrant docents who make each group feel linked to the past through stories and hands-on artifacts to other time periods and movements, the college students leave the tour motivated to learn more and use resources they haven’t thought of before. They also reflect about how easy it is to weave Benjamin Harrison’s life and the ideas he promoted like environmentalism, women and Black voting rights, federal education funding, and the arts, to standards across disciplines in integrated ways.
I have visited the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site 29 times and I cannot wait for my 30th visit this fall. We feel so fortunate to be able to experience the site and build relationships with the staff and administration whose innovative approaches will keep the future young learners excited about this “amazing place” for decades to come.
This Teacher Feature is part of our 2021 Giving Tuesday campaign. If you would like to show your support for the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and the many valuable experiences it offers, give a gift today. Make your contribution known on social media by tagging the Presidential or using #GiveTheExperience.
Due to a special event, the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site will be closed for tours on Friday, June 16, 2023.
Thank you for being an important part of the Presidential Site and sharing a legacy in action!