Many years ago, during my first year at Dana Hall, I was surprised to find my mailbox stuffed with love letters. Thankfully, they were not addressed to me and were nearly 80 years old. You see, the then Dana Hall archivist Stephanie Long had kindly shared these amazing artifacts with the new U.S. history teacher, hoping to spark his interest in the Archives. The letters were written by Lettice Lee Couling, Dana Hall Class of 1923, to her boyfriend Fred who had gone off to college in Buffalo, NY. I could immediately see why Stephanie had shared the letters; Lettice was an artist and in the margins she had drawn beautiful illustrations of the 1920s “New Woman”: flappers with bobbed hair, painted lips, and tons of attitude. In her letters Lettice probed Fred about his feelings for her, asked him to visit her in Wellesley, and used her illustrations to question what type of girl he found most attractive. The letters immediately piqued my interest, but they were hard to decipher, with Lettice’s looping cursive, her extensive use of slang, and the general disorganization of the pages. What I really needed was a research assistant!
The next day I offhandedly mentioned the letters to my U.S. History students, suggested that they needed organization and transcription, and left a few copies at the head of the classroom. I did not think much about it until the following morning when I found my students sprawled out on the floor outside Waldo Auditorium amidst an explosion of photocopied letters. They were vigorously debating how the pages might be put in order, applauding Lettice’s sass and bravado, marveling at her artistic talent, commiserating about common boy troubles. A bit of educational magic was happening at that moment, and while I was not quite sure how it was happening, I knew I needed to replicate it.
Over the next 16 years, that initial educational experiment grew into a club and now a course on Dana Hall School history and research methodology. Making History, a half-credit class offered to juniors and seniors, allows students to perform original research in the Nina Heald Webber ‘49 Archives. They get to pull on the white gloves and examine everything from love letters to lace, from dance cards to dining menus. Very few of our peer schools have archives, much less a program to guide students as they perform original research in those archives. Making History students choose their own topics and guiding questions, find the materials in the Archives that will help them find answers, and reach their own conclusions. Recent topics have included German language education during the World Wars, how Title IX impacted athletics at Dana, and the evolution of certain Dana traditions. This year student-researchers chose to examine the St. Paul’s Exchange, a brief period in Dana Hall history when the school experimented with co-education. Student researchers will share their results in the Hallmanac and the Danapedia (the School’s encyclopedia of all things Dana) over the coming months.
Through teaching Making History I have come to a deeper understanding of what was really going on that morning outside Waldo all those years ago. Dan Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, argues that intrinsic motivation and creativity is unleashed when three conditions are established in the workplace: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Interestingly enough, those were precisely the conditions that I intuitively created for my students by showing them the letters. First, they had full autonomy—it was their choice to study those letters. Second, they quickly became masters of the subject—no one, not myself or our archivists, knew what was in those letters until the students made sense of them. And finally, they knew their work had a purpose, that it was both relevant and important—my students saw themselves in Lettice’s letters and recognized that their work contributed to Dana’s history and identity. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the keys to unlocking internal motivation. And this is not only true for students; it is true for Dana faculty as well. Take my case; Dana Hall gave me the autonomy to explore archival materials, develop a mastery of the school’s history, and produce something that really matters: our Making History program.