By Jason McDonald, History
In the Spring 2021 semester, I offered New York City History as an elective for juniors and seniors. The History Department had offered New York City as an elective before, but this was the first time I had taught the course.
Early on in the semester, students were tasked with creating a podcast about a New York City history topic of their choice. Several students chose to study segregation in public schools; two chose the history of Central Park. From Washington Irving to the 2021 election, the topics represented deep interest in the history of our city. I was impressed with the depth and breadth of their interests.
A key part of each student’s production process was interviewing an expert in their chosen field. These experts, ranging from politicians and historians to reporters and civil servants, reflected the variety of the students’ podcasts. Many of them were also connected to our community. Tia Biasi, Grace’s associate director of advancement, secured Andrea Marpillero-Colomina ’99, who advised a student interested in urban planning. Parent and 2021 Comptroller candidate Zach Iscol was another interviewee. Arthur Platt, architect and the uncle of two Grace students, was another expert we interviewed. Hugo Mahabir, head of the high school, helped us secure an interview with his former student Jake Dell of Katz’s Delicatessen.
All the students conducted interviews over Zoom, and then edited the podcasts using the software of their choice. Students were instructed to present themselves as the expert in the recording; we listened to several different history podcasts to learn about how the final cut should sound.
In addition to their interviews, students sourced a selection of academic research. New articles were introduced to students each week and they were invited to dive deeper into the ones they found most interesting. We read historians such as Grace parent Barnet Schecter, Mike Wallace (the historian and author of “Gotham”), Russell Shorto, Terry Golway, Jacob Riis, and many more. It was imperative that I included many women, Hispanic, African American and LGBTQ+ authors to represent the diversity of New York communities. We started with Native American culture and settlements, and moved to Henry Hudson in 1609, Peter Stuyvesant and the New Amsterdam colony, slavery in early New York, Civil War Draft Riots of 1863, Tammany Hall, skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, Fiorello LaGuardia, Robert Moses, the AIDS crisis, the 1977 blackout, and Hurricane Sandy among many other topics. We also watched films about the Irish in Inwood in the 1960s, Ken Burns’s 1981 documentary “Brooklyn Bridge,” and his brother Ric Burns’s eight-part documentary, “New York City,” from 2003.
Throughout the year, and to make up for the lack of field trips to local landmarks that traditionally are a part of this course, we were also visited by a number of guest speakers via Zoom. The staff of the Merchant House Museum presented on wealthy New Yorkers during the Victorian era. The President of the Women’s Firefighters Union talked about the incredible sexism women faced in the New York Fire Department. The Whitney Museum shared protest art from the AIDS movement. The Transit Museum “toured” their preserved train cars. Though varied, each visit helped inform students’ perspectives as they created their podcasts.
This was an exciting project, and student feedback was very positive. Working in hybrid mode was difficult, but the combination of virtual learning, rich primary and secondary readings, and podcast production was a hit. And for me, listening to each project was a wonderful conclusion to an enjoyable and meaningful semester.
You can listen to all of their projects here.