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Two Women, Two Paths

How do high school students feel about history? We visited Constitution High School in Center City, Philadelphia, just a few weeks ago to find out. We were pleasantly surprised how involved the students were. We divided each session (of which there were four) into three parts: two “history detective”-type activities using primary sources and a discussion period that included a brief questionnaire asking them to evaluate the experience. The first activity we had the students do was compare and contrast the careers of Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans.

Eliza Grier, 1897 graduate of Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Eliza Grier was an emancipated slave who graduated from WMCP in 1897. She supported herself through college by picking cotton and received some financial assistance to attend WMCP. After her training, Grier practiced medicine in an impoverished area of South Carolina for a short time before her death in 1901.

Matilda Evans, 1897 graduate of Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

Matilda Evans (d. 1935) graduated from WMCP in 1897. She practiced medicine in Columbia, South Carolina where Dr. Evans founded several institutions for black medical professionals and patients including two hospitals and a nursing school.

We verbally presented basic contextual/background information about Woman’s Medical College and then distributed a set of documents (2 letters and 2 photographs) to each student that provided clues to the lives of Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans, two African American women who both graduated from Woman’s Med in 1897, but whose career paths diverged greatly.

Students were then given a worksheet with the contextual information and one question/prompt to think about in preparation for discussion: "After they both graduated medical school in 1897, did Eliza Grier and Matilda each become a successful doctor?"

Whiteboard documenting responses to Eliza Grier's story. (The Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections)

After the students had time to read through everything, we began the discussion by asking them what they knew about each woman from the sources provided; what they couldn’t determine but wanted to know; and then asked them to compare and contrast the two women’s careers based on the evidence. We recorded their responses on the white board and collected their worksheets if they were filled in.

Though they enjoyed the process of piecing the stories together, the students also expressed the desire for more background information about Grier and Evans, and often cited these gaps in their stories as the most frustrating thing about the activity. They had many questions and wanted to know Grier’s and Evans’s whole stories, what their backgrounds and childhoods were like, if they knew each other, what happened to them after they wrote their letters, etc.

The reactions to the Grier and Evans stories confirmed our thinking that students will be interested in these types of personal, biographical stories, accompanied by photographs that further aid in identifying with the “characters.” We expected, and it was borne out, that the students’ verbal answers to some of the prompts during the discussions would differ from their original written answers because they would pick up more and more info from listening to each other during the discussion.

In Session 1 ( 9th &10th graders), the students’ written answers to the worksheet question, After they both graduated medical school in 1897, did Eliza Grier and Matilda each become successful doctors? were mostly “yes,” though the evidence showed, as the students acknowledged in the discussion, that Grier and Evans had very different levels of success. They answered the written question as if we had asked if they became doctors at all, not if they became successful doctors. But when we asked them to put her story together from the evidence in the discussion portion, they came to a more nuanced (and more accurate) conclusion about the differences between the two women’s situations.

When we told the students and how much we emphasized the fact that Eliza Grier was born a slave seemed to affect their level of empathy for and understanding of her situation. We told the Session 1 students in fairly deliberate way early on in the discussion; we told the Session 2 students almost as an afterthought once their discussion was well underway and that had formed their opinions and conclusions. By that time the Session 2 students were markedly less sympathetic to Grier’s plight and were asking questions along the lines of: “If she was a doctor why did she get so sick? Couldn’t she heal herself? If she was doctor why couldn’t she pay her rent?”

This group of students, although they don’t all love history, are predisposed to being interested and engaged with primary sources or at least have high exposure to primary sources, given CHS’s mission (history and civic engagement), and strong NHD participation. Additionally, both groups of students were selected from voluntary clubs (mock trial, historical society) at a history and civics-focused high school, so their high levels of engagement with the activities are not representative of most students. But the differences in the type of engagement between grade levels, even among this group, were very instructive.

Using these activities made it hard to extricate content from process; when asked what they specifically liked and didn’t like about both the process and the content (the story), their answers often conflated the two. The students enjoyed playing history detective and were curious about the gaps in the stories; the gaps kept them interested in the content and wanting to know more.

While still in the early stages of our research, it is promising that students will get involved and seem to enjoy "doing" history using primary sources, first-hand accounts, and photographs; if history is presented as a "story."