Promotional collage for "Big Little Town" by the Needham Historical Society.
Georgia Meyer, GBP Student
Every day on my drive to school I pass the Town Hall, historically distinguished houses, Hershey train station, and all kinds of old churches. I also pass a Dunkin’ Donuts, a Japanese steak house, and a unnecessarily high number of Closet Exchanges. I never really give any of these sites any extra thought. Maybe the occasional, “I really want a coffee”, or, “maybe I’ll take the train into the city this weekend”, but nothing to appreciate the vast history of Needham. I never think about the difference between Needham Bank and Citizen’s Bank— just two places to cash a check or get some money, when in reality only Needham Bank has a fascinating history, complete with a robbery. After watching Big Little Town, my ride to school has become a little less boring. Sitting in traffic at the intersection of Great Plain and Webster means looking at house with a plaque stating it was built in the 1800’s and wondering what it has seen.
Big Little Town is a film created by Kathryn Dietz and Marc Mandel to honor Needham’s 300 years of history for its year-long tricentennial celebration. The film examines different aspects of Needham’s creation; from its original split from Dedham and Wellesley to its ethnically divided neighborhoods in the 20th century. The film looks at images drawn more than 300 years ago and interviews Needham residents today. The effect is an intriguing and relatable story which pulls together all the pieces of Needham we see today.
I was particularly interested in the story of William Baker. I remember hearing brief snippets of the story throughout the years but nothing that stuck with me for too long. But when I heard the details of Baker’s eccentric personality and saw the pictures of the attractions he commissioned in Big Little Town I was amazed! A friend of mine, and fellow GBP student, lives on a piece of what’s left of the estate, so I have had the chance to see how beautiful it is. I can just imagine what it would have looked like with the gardens, the rides, and the hotel it had back in its glory days.
When I walked into class and found out we were watching a movie right before April Break, I was just glad to have a class I could relax in for a little like every other student. But, by the time the movie was over, I was filled with excitement; I was ready to share what I had learned with my friends and family and maybe find out more about my town on my own.
Sarah McEvoy, GBP Student
For over four hundred years, Needham (and most other towns in Massachusetts) has held Town Meetings to address issues of the town to be discussed and resolved. According to the article we read in class on Tuesday of last week, “the town meetings that took place in Colonial times differed only slightly from the town meetings we hold today.” It is so cool that after all these years, some things stay the same. In a typical town meeting, representatives from the town stand up one at a time and recite an issue that faces the town. Then, there is time for debate where people can agree with your argument or refute it. Once the debates simmer down, there is eventually time to make a compromise and establish a new law or ordeal within the town.
One of the main goals of The Greater Boston Project is to help us improve our oral communication skills, so what better practice than to have a mock town meeting for the entire class? This is how it went: Mr. Odierna took on the role of “Mr. Moderator,” who controlled the meeting; he posed two different issues that Massachusetts faces. The first was the tax on tobacco and the other was being the legalization of fireworks, both of which are major topics up for review right now. The class was split in half to do research on each topic. An exciting part of this meeting was that you could choose whether you were for or against the issue. Then, there was time to debate. The topic of the tax on tobacco started and students began to make their way to the podium, devices in hand, to present their case. It was so interesting to see the specific research and statistics that each student had to back themselves up. Great arguments were made and the debates were heated at times. After the two topics were debated and addressed, the “Town of GBP” made final decisions on what to do. The class was to say “yay” if they were for the change and to say “nay” if they weren’t. Of course, opinions varied, as they always do, so it was tough to make a unanimous decision.
This activity was effective in showing us what it is like to be a part of a town meeting whether it be from the 1600s or 2015. It was a great way for us to do research and, at the same time, strengthen our presentation skills. Everyone seemed to really enjoy this activity. From my time in GBP, I have noticed that when we have activities that require this kind of interactive participation, everyone has a lot of fun while learning something important. Learning about town meetings is relevant to our lives today because it is actually how many town governments are still run!
Ellen Ingwerson, GBP Student
Only 200 years ago was Needham a different community. It served as agricultural grounds and was set in a time where religion was still largely part of day-to-day life. But there were also similarities intertwined within local politics.
Last week, GBP went to the Needham Historical Society, part of which is comprised of a replica schoolhouse: chalkboard on one wall, fireplace in the middle, and “rotting” floorboards. You can imagine kids rushing into the fire-lit room from the cold weather outside. It seems cozy and the type of schooling I’ve grown up wishing I could have, but though it may be warm and small, school back then was far from cozy.
After our “first-hand” experience getting to see what it would be like going to school as a Puritan, school seemed dreadful at the time. The class would have been separated by gender and the obvious tension of Puritan severity. Teachers would carry yard sticks and use them to whip the bottoms of young school kids–being punished for exactly what they did, or couldn’t do. Everyone would have been told to write down, re-write, memorize, and recite ideas that were actually very similar to what my family tried to instill in me growing up: the ten commandments, chastity, clean language, and to respect the Lord. Some elements remain classic.
Our day at the Needham Historical Society there was, of course, rather different. Everyone got together in groups and rotated to different tables looking at various artifacts from the early 1700s. We discussed and analysed the various maps, letters, and creative writing pieces written or drawn by different people during the pre-revolutionary era.
The Needham Historical Society, including the old schoolhouse (right). (Photo from the North American Reciprocal Museum Association)
A map at one table had houses labeled with people’s first names. The houses were spread out which told us that this few-populated Needham was most likely a farm town. A creative writing assignment written by a young school girl showed us that as time went on there were other writing assignment besides the re-writing and memorizing of the commandments. A journal written by a minister living in Needham records the families he visited and their religious status confirming that a strong faith is vital to having a high status and being “pure.” On the last table lay the recordings of multiple town meetings formatted the same way as today. Even the topics of discussion were the same: voting positions and town infrastructure or taxes.
All these documents show both similarities like the town meeting documents, and differences like the reverend’s journal. It was pretty cool to have the opportunity to compare these two time periods not only from reading old documents, but also getting to look at old pictures, clothing, houses, and different products displayed around all the rooms at the Needham Historical Society. While looking around you notice toys or stores that are still around today–history we’re unaware of right in front of us.
Though some traditions may have changed, there’s noticeably a lot more that has been passed down than we may think or even realize.
It is hard to believe that this was once the reality of Puritan students. I knew I always had a special distaste for Puritan beliefs (shoutout to The Crucible!), but this simulation made the feeling even more real. This activity made me realize that I might not actually have it that rough in school, contrary to my melodramatic complaints my family has to deal with when I come home. When I experienced the tense and oppressive nature of the Puritan classroom, I had a frightening thought; am I spoiled by Needham High School!? *Shudders*
Religion impacted all aspects of the Puritan lifestyle and system, and we were able to experience first-hand its role in education. In the Puritan mindset, Evil is all around. This harsh reality hit the lefties in our class and in Puritan times especially hard, as writing with the left hand was supposedly the “Devil’s work.” I suppose the only way for a naturally-born lefty to avoid burning in Hell was to live a lie as a righty. This just goes to show that religion somehow justified everything, and life was to be lived in constant fear of going to Hell. This essentially generates a lifetime of Hell, as Puritans were expected to frantically live their life attempting to counteract sins they made in the womb.
Puritans were born into being guilty sinners, and they accept this because their religion and society insisted that they were. Fear of sin and going to Hell was very prominent in this religion, and fear and guilt go hand in hand. Guilt was something Puritanism was founded upon. If there was no perpetual guilt forced upon them, the Puritans wouldn’t be so compliant and could potentially question religious authority. Even I experienced that authentic Puritan guilt as I walked through the door, and that shows just how effective it was, especially in a school context.
The dry, drilled and religious nature of the classroom made me uncomfortable, yet in some ways we do still face mindless recitation and other distant remnants of religion in the classroom. For example, similar to what we recited in our painful moments of being Puritan students, all American students are taught the pledge of allegiance and are required to commit it to memory as well. Even if it’s absolute nonsense to a kid, this ancient pledge is mindlessly chanted by our modern youth. Although this is technically now optional, there is pressure and expectation that you will join and respect it. Religion still has a role in this country’s basic curriculum as we teach our kids to recite that we live in “one nation, under God”, subtly imposing the Christian religion on the country. We have obviously progressed as a society and in education since the Puritan era, yet there are still aspects of our nation’s beginnings that carry over to our classroom today.
A group of GBP students walk from the Massachussets Historical Society to the Boston Public Library on Bolyston Street (Left).
Students in GBP Periods 1-2 gather together in front of the Boston Public Library at the end of their day in the city (Right).
(Photos by Ms. Tincher)
Brendan Lombardi, GBP Student
Obviously it was exciting to wake up and be going into the Boston for a day rather than being stuck in a classroom, but how much different could it be than a regular class? In the past, field trips have always been just a day to skip class. Whether it was going to the aquarium or the State House, there was just never really anything on these trips that directly affected my experience in a class. The trips we take in The Greater Boston Project, however, have a more significant meaning.
The whole point of GBP is to, obviously, learn all about the Greater Boston area, whether it be from what was going on 400 years ago to what may happen 5 years down the road. To do this we do things ranging from reading articles from the Boston Globe to examining documents written by John Winthrop. We bounce from analyzing or reviewing statistical data of the settlers coming over to the New World to talking about the damages of technology in our world today. Sometimes, however, it’s hard for us as students to sort through all the clutter that these different topics and topic shifts cause us. A city so rich in history cannot be simply conveyed through documents or lectures; the sights, smells, sounds of the city are not something that can be taught in the classroom. Instead, we walk through the Boston Public Library and take in its amazing architecture, working on our Colonial Context Projects amidst the massive stacks in Bates Hall. Or we trek through the winding streets of Boston to the Massachusetts Historical Society, where we get to actually see the real documents we read in class. Even the experience of taking the train in and seeing how close we really are to such a breathtaking city helps make all the experiences and artifacts we see on a screen in class finally up close and tangible.
Our class is mostly classroom time at Needham High and accessing information through technology, but it is also so closely intertwined with a city just a few miles away. We need to see this relationship between what we read on our iPads or laptops in class to the city of Boston itself. Teaching a class about a city only miles away without actually visiting it would be senseless; Mr. Brooke, Mr.Odierna, and Ms. Tincher understand this and have carefully crafted a balance of class time and out of class time that will allow us to get the most out of the class as we possibly can. As we continue to move forward in class learning more and more information everyday, I look forward to our field trips this year that allow us as students to really immerse ourselves in the city of Boston.
Ellie Kahn, GBP Student
The history of our city is well-known to all who have studied it: the desperation to detach from an unforgiving nation, a suspenseful and painful revolution, and ultimately, bittersweet independence. The stories we hear about dodging whizzing bullets, surviving cold winters, and other acts of strength sketch for us a portrait of our ancestors as heros, paving the way for us to live in safety and security. We are taught the valor of those who settled this country, portrayed through Thanksgiving arts and crafts in preschool, plays in elementary school, projects in middle school, and documentaries in high school. And of course, not to forget the abundance of gleaming statues and plaques located around the city of Boston itself, a reminder to praise those who settled it. After all, we owe our “land of the free and the home of the brave” to those who won that perilous fight we all know so well. But underneath the red, white and blue, the glimmer of the statues around Boston, and the Thanksgiving arts and crafts lurks a darker, more hidden past. It is a past that isn’t talked about as much as it should be.
The past few weeks in the Greater Boston Project have been dedicated to researching and learning about the different Native American tribes whose lives were transformed when the settlers came over from England. We have read primary source after primary source detailing the horrors, ignorance, and general disrespect that the Puritans offered to them, as if they were gifts. For example, the Nauset Tribe, who, despite being known as the colonist’s greatest “allies,” were decimated by disease and abduction as a result of the the colonist’s introduction. Or the Paugussett Tribe, the first group to help the settlers after they arrived, as well as the first group herded onto a reservation, leaving their land to be taken by the settler’s. Or the Quinnipiac tribe, who could not no longer sustain themselves because of the environmental changes caused by the colonists. The list of Native American tribes who were profoundly affected by the arrival of the colonists is shamefully long.
The point of that list: our history is not untainted. It is okay to want to celebrate our nation; there is a lot to be celebrated. We fought brutal battles to break away from a powerful country that aimed to control every aspect of our lives, and when the dust settled and we were finally free, we were left to pick up the pieces and establish our own nation. Our history is important to remember and commemorate, but we cannot just pick and choose the stories of which we are proud. Along with the tales of sacrifice and glory, of passion and of victory, we must not forget those who were made to suffer through trials of despair and pain in the cause of our history, the terror and disruption we caused to the Native American tribes. We cannot acknowledge our fight for freedom without first acknowledging those whose freedom we took away.
This seal was the message members of the Mass. Bay Colony wished to convey to prospective settlers still in England. The image created was designed to appeal to those across the pond with an appetite for evangelizing, establishing a perception that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a place to do “God’s work.”
The reality on the other side of the Atlantic, as our students found, was quite different. In a letter from one of the colonists home to England, evangelizing Native Americans took a back seat to survival. In the letter, which plead for his relatives in England to send provisions across the oceans, it certainly seemed as if it was not the Native Americans who needed help from the English, but the other way around!
This contrast between perception and reality is a foundational part of the GBP curriculum, and though I am teaching my students to explore this through lessons like the Massachussets Bay Seal, I am navigating perception and reality in my own way on a daily basis. I have taught at Needham High School for three years, but this is my first year teaching the Greater Boston Project, and I am slowly coming to understand the true nature of the course, having only seen it from the outside for its first two years.
The Greater Boston Project always had the air of “big” to me before I became involved with it. Three teachers, a giant room, two blocks per day, and a mass of students coupled with strong and important initiatives like one-to-one technology pilots and interdisciplinary learning goals. All of that is true about the course, by the way, but my perception was that the point of GBP was its grandeur; that is where I was wrong.
After seeing it in action and taking part in the classroom, I’ve found that for all of its size, GBP’s greatest focus is on the small. The giant room in which we reside is rarely used as such, and the majority of the day is spent with students in small groups. We even go a step further in analyzing and assessing teamwork within these groups, paying close attention to who takes on what roles, and advising how better to relate to each individual within the group. These big initiatives like one-to-one device pilots and interdisciplinary learning turned out to be a way of making sure every student can engage with the course content on an individual level. Having three teachers has really meant extra eyes to review the details of the day.
This seems fitting. In a senior elective in which we could have taught anything we wanted on any scale, we chose to study a relatively small city on a relatively small timescale. Through focusing on the sometimes small details that make up this city and its history, we find important reminders, positive and negative, of where we came from and where we’re going.
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