I'm a big believer in scouring eBay for things to make my life more interesting. This has led to many interesting and eye-rolling conversations with my wife and several interesting projects in my classroom.

For several years now, I've had eBay automatically notify me when any item having to do with the town of Deerfield, NH (where I teach) comes up for auction. As a result, I've built up a pretty substantial collection of antique postcards, letters, photographs and other primary source documents having to do with this town. (See above)

One great resource that I've built up over the years is a collection of Town Reports that covers about 85 years. (These are the reports that each town in Northern New England sends out to itemize its spending over the past year, in preparation for Town Meeting.)

I've had these laying around for several years now, but haven't really known what to do with them.

I finally did what I should have done long ago; I put the question to people smarter than me - my Critical Friends Group. The looked through my collection of primary source material and made some truly inspired suggestions, which gave me enough ideas to rough out an idea for a project:

Step 1: Kid-Proofing My Old Stuff

I've had students look at some of my old postcards and documents in the past, and I know how fascinated they can get by holding old photos of their town in their hands. This kind of engagement seemed like an important element to this project, but at the same time, I didn't want these postcards to get trashed, so I ordered a couple of packages of clear PVC postcard sleeves to protect them.

I knew I wanted to use my old Town Reports, but definitely didn't want them handled too much, so with the help of a colleague, I scanned a number of them into PDF files that my guys could handle as much as they wanted.

Step 2: Interview with an Archivist

If my students were going to be working with primary source documents, they should probably have a good idea of what that means and why these old documents are important. I asked for help on Twitter and was put in contact with Sally Jacobs, an archivist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, who was willing to do a Skype interview with our students.

She did a great job. (See below)

Step 3: Getting My Students Hooked

I gave all my students an entire, unscheduled period to look at fifty or sixty antique postcards of the town. This started the wheels in their heads turning, wondering about what the town was like a hundred years ago.
I wrote four questions on the board for the students to think about as they looked at the old postcards:

1)   Do you recognize this place?

2)   What is the same as now?

3)   What is different?

4)   What is missing? What should be there that isn't? (Suggested by Sally Jacobs)

Step 4: Getting Data From the Town Reports

After looking through several of the Town Reports, a colleague and I came up with five categories that seemed to be common to most of the Town Budgets and that were (at least marginally) interesting: Maintaining Winter Roads, Schools, The Library, Damage by Dogs and Care of the Poor (sometimes listed as "Support of Paupers").

I listed all the Town Reports on my board and had each student choose one to study. There were enough for each student to have one of his own, but few enough that between three classes (two of mine and one of my colleague's), most of the years had two students going over the same data.

Each student brought a USB drive to me and I downloaded a digital copy of her Town Report onto it. 

(Since then, I've realized that it works better to upload each of the Reports to GoogleDrive as a public document and create a TinyUrl for it. This avoids the whole, "I left my USB drive at home" problem.)

I had spent a class period the previous week going over how to calculate a percentage with my guys, so now I asked them to:

1)  Look up how much the Town of Deerfield had spent on its total budget during "their" year.

2)   Look up how much the Town spent on each of the five categories.

and 3)  Calculate what percentage each represented of the total Budget.

I scaffolded this pretty thoroughly in their project packets. (See below)

File Size: 1161 kb
File Type: town report project packet
Download File

And because all but the oldest Town Reports had listings of Vital Statistics in the back - how many births, marriages and deaths there had been over the previous year - I had students record that data, too.

This stage  took two-three days of class time. We worked in the Computer Lab for most of that time, though individual students could do this research at home, as well.

Step 5: Graphing the Data

I begged some poster-sized graph paper from my Math colleague and roughed out a graph for the Percentage Statistics and another one for the Vital Statistics. I had each student go over her math a couple of times then, when she was pretty sure she had done everything right, had her graph her data on the charts, then put a slip of paper under the year, so if there was a discrepancy with somebody else's figures, we knew who to talk to about it.

I also had each student graph his percentage statistics as a bar graph or a pie chart so we could get a dramatic comparison of spending in his year.

(And so I could have another element in this project to grade.)

Step 6: Interpreting the Data

We spent a full class period going over our data. What was really interesting was examining the outliers or anomalies - the spikes that had no particular explanation. For instance, the blue spike on the left that indicates a massive (5X) increase in births in the year 1912. What, we wondered, had happened in Deerfield, NH in 1911?

One student suggested that a lot of people might have moved to town that year and the class was in giggles for several minutes as we contemplated a waddling army of pregnant women invading our small town.

As it turns out, the spike in 1912 was a graphing error - the birth rate was only slightly higher than normal that year - but the death rates (in black) were less explainable. The numbers and the math were correct. Students suggested several possibilities, like an epidemic, but that didn't pan out either; we looked at the causes of death that year and there was no clustering of similar deaths around the same time.

We did find another mystery however - one of the deaths had been from "Morphine Habit". The fact that a 19th Century Deerfielder had died from drug addiction was simultaneously tragic and highly cool. We cross-referenced his name against a list I had of Civil War soldiers from Deerfield and found that he had been too old to serve during the war. In fact, what might explain an 83-year old farmer dying from morphine addiction? We still don't have an answer, but the students were impressed by what great stories we were getting from such minimal information.

Step 7: Interviewing a Selectman

Steve Berry, the Chairman of the Deerfield Board of Selectmen agreed to spend most of the day with us last Friday, getting grilled by three separate classes of 7th graders.

Now that they had investigated how Deerfield has spent its money historically, they wanted to ask him questions about how spending decisions are made in town, today.

Click here to see the full interview. (Sorry about the sound quality)

I'm always proud of my guys, but they were completely awesome during both the interviews I sat in on - Mr. Berry was also interviewed by my colleague's class - that I was stunned. I had had each student prepare three questions ahead of time to ask him, but they hardly needed them. They paid close attention and asked really good, insightful questions about budgets, default budgets and municipal spending in general. They showed a high level of genuine interest.

I was very proud of them.

(Apparently, so was Mr. Berry - a very no-nonsense kind of guy - who told me he would definitely be happy to come in next year and do this again.)


Overall, I couldn't be happier with this project. It went incredibly smoothly for a first attempt and I would only make a few small adjustments before doing it again:
  • Next year, I'll scan more Town Reports to have a larger selection available.
  • Since they are saved as PDFs, I can highlight passages, so I might highlight the total budget figure in each one to help each student find the first, most important data point.
  • I'll upload all the Reports to begin with and avoid any USB complications.
  • There were some problems with the URLs assigned by TinyUrl, so I'll find a creative way to name the URLs that won't be randomly reassigned to a Korean Teen Magazine (a tiny, but frustrating complication)

As always, your comments are appreciated.

New Hampshire State Social Studies Standards and Frameworks Met by This Project

Students will be able to:

A1: Use economic and geographic data, historical sources, as well as other appropriate sources

A3: Draw on the diversity of social studies-related sources, such as auditory and visual sources, such as documents, charts, pictures, architectural works, and music

B1: Distinguish between primary and secondary sources

B2: Detect cause and effect relationships

B6: Draw from the source information at a level appropriate to the task at hand, ie., skimming for facts or probing for deeper meaning

B7: Utilize various types of sources such as documents, charts, images, artifacts and maps

C1: Use appropriate sources to gain meaning of essential terms and vocabulary, glossary dictionary, texts word lists

C2: Recognize and understand relevant social studies terms

D3: Gather information by conducting basic statistical analysis

F1: Group data in categories according to appropriate criteria

F2: Place in proper sequence, i.e., in order of occurrence, including in timelines, or in order of importance, etc…

F3: Place data in tabular form: charts, graphs and illustrations

G1: Draw inferences from factual material

G4: Form opinions based on critical examination of relevant information

G5: State hypothesis for further study

G6: Take into account when interpreting events or behaviors context of their time and place

H1: Present visually (chart, graph, diagram, model, Power Point, ets.)

H2: Present orally (presentation, debate, group-discussion, simulation, etc.)

K1: Keep informed on issues that affect society

SS:CV:8:3.2: Analyze environmental, economic, and technological developments and their impact on society. (Themes: C: People, Places and Environment, D: Material Wants and Needs, G: Science, Technology, and Society)

SS:CV:8:4.1: Describe and analyze ways Americans can effectively participate in civic and political life at the local, state, and federal levels,  e.g.,      problem solving, public engagement, or voting. (Themes: A: Conflict and Cooperation, B: Civic Ideals, Practices, and Engagement, J: Human Expression and Communication)

SS:EC:8:5.1: Distinguish among the different methods of allocating resources, e.g., traditional, free market, or command economies. (Themes: D: Material Wants and Needs, F: Global Transformation, G: Science, Technology, and Society)


Step 8, publish and archive for maximum public benefit.


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