Anna Wang | Stanford Spokes Project

From June 16th to August 28th, 2023, I was a member of Stanford Spokes, a team of six Stanford students who biked across the country and taught self-designed educational workshops for over 250 K-12 students at schools, libraries, and learning centers along the way. Our goal was to build strong, lasting relationships in the communities we passed through and empower students to explore their interest in learning. Biking was a crucial part of this approach to education: when we bike, we meet communities where they are, on the ground.

Heading into the summer, I had no substantial background in education; I had definitely never created or taught a lesson of my own to students. As I brainstormed workshop ideas in preparation for the trip, I realized I was most interested in teaching history. I hoped to show students that learning history involves more than memorizing facts and/or handling written sources that set forth clear perspectives, which is how I learned history in public middle and high school. I especially wanted to expose them to resources and practices I first encountered as a History major at Stanford: 1) online historical archives, 2) the standards historians use to evaluate truth, and 3) the understanding that all historians and students of history bring their own perspectives to the historical narratives they construct and learn, and that critically engaging with your own perspective is a key component of a history education.

My lesson plan introduced students to the above historical approaches by focusing on photographs as historical sources. Specifically, I had students explore online historical photo archives run by their home state government or historical society. Then, I gave students the opportunity to experiment with taking photos of an object of personal significance, encouraging them to think through the story each photo tells and how choosing one photo over another changes the representation of their object. We asked questions I grapple with in Stanford history classes: How does the act of taking a photo/capturing a source affect the perspective represented by said photo/source? How should historians handle bias (in their sources and in themselves) in order to construct the most honest historical narrative they can?

Teaching my workshop over the course of the summer was a process of constant learning and revision. In some cases, my lesson design fit the students well, allowing them to grasp the core concepts of my workshop quickly. In Kansas City, MO, for example, students surprised me with the depth of their curiosity and imagination. In response to the photos I begin my lesson with—two perspectives (see 1 and 2) of a Stanford Louis Agassiz statue after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, pulled from the Stanford online archives and presented without any context—they pondered provenance, offered interpretations involving protests for racial justice, and questioned the authenticity of the source. In other cases, my lesson plan was not properly tailored to the students I was teaching, which made engagement with the material difficult. In Carson City, NV and Farmington, MO, for instance, I worked with children ages 5-8 who struggled to connect the archival photos I projected on the screen to the photos they took with cameras during the workshop; trying to communicate the relevance that abstract historical concepts have in our daily lives was a major hurdle I faced when teaching younger students. Over time, I learned to create different versions of my lesson plan for different age ranges, streamlining the content to a few core take-aways for elementary school students.

Learning to teach history this past summer was a deeply rewarding experience for me as a History major. I met many elementary and middle school students who told me their favorite ways to learn history were not necessarily in the classroom, but in museum exhibits or in family living rooms, listening to the stories their parents tell them—students who asked unexpected questions that prompted me to have moments of discovery about my own workshop. Through the process of articulating and teaching how I think about history, I now have a more nuanced understanding of the differences between history education at the K-12 and university levels, not to mention a new appreciation of the work all history educators do on a daily basis. And, as a student of history myself, I start the new academic year with a renewed conviction in the value of a history education.