Liggett class brings history home

By: April Lehmbeck | Grosse Pointe Times | Published December 17, 2014


GROSSE POINTE WOODS — Instead of rehashing U.S. history as it’s been taught for generations, University Liggett students take a look at history from a new perspective that hits close to home.

The 10th-grade U.S. history class looks at major historical events in correlation to Detroit and the region.

“In most U.S. history courses, you assume the Pilgrims arrived in New England first, and there began a slow march west, but at the same time, the French were settling here in the Great Lakes Region and the Spanish were in California and Florida,” Social students department chair and co-creator of the course, Adam Hellebuyck, said in a news release. “Aren’t their stories just as relevant? In our class, the camera lens hovers over this region rather than on some distant place while we explore the larger themes of American history.”

Hellebuyck created the course with Curriculum Director Jane Healey.

“The U.S. history course was developed by Healey and Hellebuyck, who received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to work with the Henry Ford Museum to research the early industrialization of the region,” Liggett stated in a news release. “Their research continues as they look forward to next semester — teaching the story of the Harlem Renaissance through prominent Detroit figures, for instance, and looking at the opulence of the Roaring ’20s by visiting the Edsel & Eleanor Ford House.”

The course isn’t focused on spending all of its time in the classroom. The students have been exploring.

For instance, they visited the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe while studying the War of 1812. Then, they created an exhibit on the War of 1812, which is now in Liggett’s main hallway.

Other field trips included the Sanilac Petroglyphs, St. Anne’s Church, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Historical Museum.

If tying the local area to broader U.S. history wasn’t enough of a special aspect, the class also brings the student’s English coursework into the mix. Students study the time periods behind the literature in the English course.

It’s a new course for the school, but it’s a success if you ask the students in the class, who are enjoying this new way of learning their country’s history.

“Using the Detroit region as its lens, Liggett’s course forgoes the traditional East Coast-centered approach taught in most 10th-grade U.S. history courses,” Liggett stated in the news release. “A few examples: The Civil War is taught by looking at Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad; early European settlements are studied from the perspective of the French who settled among the Native tribes who already inhabited the region; and the Industrial Revolution, of course, focuses on Detroit’s central role producing commodities like furniture, railroad cars and automobiles.”

As for whether this is a success or not, it seems the students think so.

“We’re not just learning the same dry information,” student Sarah Galbenski said.

The material and the classroom visits have helped the lessons resonate with her more than just learning it the traditional way. She said that when they visited the River Raisin Battlefield, they went on a particularly cold day.

“That’s the cold they would have been fighting in,” she said.

“It definitely gives a different view on how we learn history,” Jay Jay Jerry said.

Student Amani Tolin also enjoyed the field trip to the River Raisin Battlefield.

“You can really see the story that they’re trying to tell,” he said. “The experience that you get there is really tremendous.”

She also spoke of the projects they’ve been doing. While she’s a history buff who enjoys studying the past, “This helps me love it even more,” she said.

Associate Dean of Faculty Bart Bronk said they want to make the learning experience relevant for students.

“It allows them to really connect those ideas to a place, and that place being home,” he said. “It’s very different than anything they’ve ever experienced before.

“From an administrator’s perspective, we’re just thrilled at seeing kids really engaged,” he said.