Friday, July 4, 2008

July 4 - Friday From The Collectors


A Family History Project in the High
School English Classroom

Denise May Levenick
The Family Curator

This is an Independence Day article (of sorts). It is a story about a woman of independent spirit, but no independent means born over 100 years ago – Arline Kinsel Brown – and a group of independent young women of the 21st century.

This past spring semester, I introduced my high school English students to Arline and her family and friends. I made a proposal: Instead of a Final Exam, would they be willing to undertake a project requiring that they read other people’s mail, speculate on family secrets, and engage in a wee bit of gossip? They assured me that it would be “no problem.”

The last days of the last semester of the year are every high school teacher’s nightmare. The seniors have been accepted (or denied) at the college of their dreams, the juniors are exhausted, and the Southern California sun lures everyone outdoors with the promise of summer and sand.

I felt a bit like a senior myself; this would be my last semester after eleven years teaching American Literature at Mayfield Senior School, an independent Catholic all-girls high school in Pasadena, California.

My honors course in American Literature focuses on the American spirit and its early roots in Puritan religion and Yankee hard work. When we read works by Louisa May Alcott and her transcendentalist father, Bronson Alcott, I share photocopies of a manuscript letter from Louisa to her friend Annie Fields. It is written in Louisa’s lovely 19th century hand and the girls enjoy deciphering her penmanship and interpreting the colloquial phrases. We spend considerable time looking at the subtext, the story written “between the lines.” We talk about what isn’t being said, as much as what is said. And, we talk quite a bit about how the stories we read aren’t really so different from the stories of our own lives. Somewhere in the discussion, I mentioned that I was researching the life of a woman who lived in the early 1900’s by reading her letters and papers.

Setting the Bait

“She was born in 1890,” I explained, “and lived in Missouri, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and California. She was married five times – twice to the same man – and had four children. . . that I know of. . .”

That was enough to catch their attention. “Married how many times?” “The same man twice?” It didn’t take long for a classroom of 17-and 18-year olds fascinated with TV drama to see the soap opera potential in my tale.

“And, she carried a gun, sometimes.”

The girls were hooked.

Two sisters having a good time, Mercy (in dark dress) and Arline.
Probably about the same age as the students who viewed
their photographs in 2008.

Preparing Classroom Materials

Talking to the students about the project early on proved to be helpful in several ways. At a personal level, I now felt committed to the project; no backing out when the logistics and preparation threatened to become overwhelming. Another bonus was the girls’ growing anticipation. Students inquired on my progress in getting the letters ready to be read; they asked about the authors’ background; they made connections between the time period of the letters and the decades they were studying in their U.S. History class. They also wanted to know how I came to have the papers.

At first I played down my own relationship to Arline Allen Kinsel. I thought they would find her story more intriguing if she was “just a woman” rather than my grandmother. When I did at last reveal her relationship to me, I could see a few raised eyebrows. Hmm. My grandmother isn’t like that.

At home, I worked on preparing for the class project. My grandmother did indeed live in at least five western states and marry five times. When she died in 1967 she left an old trunk filled to the top with letters, receipts, and a lifetime of paper. I first delved into the collection in 1976 when I wrote a paper on her life story for a university class in family history. Then the letters went back into the trunk where they rested in a Lucky Lager box for twenty years. I wish we knew then about the damaging effects of acidic cardboard, heat, and moisture. The trunk itself was first stored in my aunt’s back house, a little unheated room off the garage that reached sweltering temperatures in the summer. Then it was moved to a garage. . . equally brutal. The papers were eventually rescued and came to me, “The Family Curator.” In every family there seems to be one person who takes all the stuff everyone realizes is important but no one else really wants to store. That’s me.

The papers came to me in five banker’s boxes and a couple of beer crates. I have not officially tallied the total number of items, but at least five hundred letters, over two hundred photos, and numerous certificates, deeds, and legal documents are now safely settled in archival storage boxes. Sometimes I feel quite rich. Sometimes I feel quite exhausted.

I began transcribing the letters in the summer of 2007, as soon as school ended for the term, and by this spring I had barely dented the stack of correspondence. It would be wonderful to have my students assist as interns in the project. I also started a blog, The Family Curator, to keep a record of my progress.

Although I have many wonderful photographs, I wanted the girls to read the original letters and meet the writers in words before seeing their pictures and making judgments based on appearance. Each letter was scanned and transferred to the school server. The girls logged on to the server, retrieved the letter, and worked on their transcription in a Microsoft Word document.

The Project Begins

The first day of the project was exhausting. Confusion reigned. The girls had considerable difficulty deciphering the 19th and early 20th century handwriting and phrases. I had not considered that Colo. and Tex. would be seen as individual words; they had never heard of state abbreviations other than CO and TX.

It was clear by Day Two that the girls were gaining familiarity with the handwriting. Students came to class and went directly to a computer to retrieve their files. At times, silence reigned. Then, I interrupted their work to share the photographs.

It is true, “pictures talk.” My students were fascinated by the photographs. What was particularly interesting to me was the way the photos seem to reinforce their earlier impressions gained from reading the letters alone. For example, several girls were working on letters from Roy to his divorced wife, Arline. Some girls thought he sounded like a scoundrel. “Why does he keep telling her to ‘be good’” they asked. Others thought he seemed sweet and misunderstood, a husband abandoned.

Then, they viewed a photo album page with Arline, Roy and Baby Lucile. The harsh New Mexico light intensifies Roy’s scowl, Arline looked at him; she seems almost tentative. Under the photo, Arline has written “Two Happy Domestic Scenes Ha Ha Ha.”

Arline and Roy with infant Lucile, probably late winter or early spring
1909 in Fierro,New Mexico. This loose page was reassembled to reveal
Arline’s comment alongthe bottom edge: Two Happy Domestic
Scenes. Ha, Ha.” The missing photo of“Mr. Murphy’s Family”
has not been discovered. Roy and Lucile divorced in 1912.

The students got into a lively discussion over the most misunderstood – Roy or Arline. When I explained that the couple was involved in a bitter custody battle over their small daughter, even kidnapping her back and forth, they went back to the photos to see they if they could reconcile this new information with the faces in the photograph. Was it significant that there were only two photos of Roy in all the many photographs? Who was the man inked out in a snapshot. Roy? Another husband? A beau? So many pictures of Arline, clearly a young woman who liked to dress up and pose for the camera. So many pictures of Lucile.

“Viewing the photos of Arline, of Roy. . .” wrote Madison, “made the stories real in a way letters could not do.”

Meaghan noted, that the photographs gave a look “into their lives – how they dressed, where they lived, what they could afford, what they did for fun, etc. etc. It became much more of a tangible, personal story.”

Happy summer times in Beulah Colorado at her mother’s ranch,
about 1912. Arline on the porch of the ranch house.

By Days Three and Four, the students were comfortable working with the documents. After finishing their transcriptions, the girls worked with a partner to read the letters aloud and check their work for errors. This proved to be a great exercise in sharing ideas about the text as well. Fast typists kept the workflow moving. At the students’ request, I sketched a rough family tree on the board. Arline’s papers included correspondence written to and authored by every member of her family – mother, father, sister, aunts, cousins and more.

Discovering Stories

At the conclusion of the project we held a roundtable discussion led by the seniors. Each girl spoke for a few minutes about the subject of her letter and read a section she found particularly interesting.

The stories they shared revealed a young girl desperately trying to find herself in a society that held strict views on the place of women. They were surprised to read that she was 19, almost their own age, when her daughter was born. They had difficulty hearing what she wrote at age 25 after Roy’s family had taken Lucile,

“I saw my darling sweet Lucile last night and my heart is nearly broken. . . Mrs. P says she has a cold most all the time and has enlarged tonsils, out side of that she is allright and they take pretty good care of her. Well, I haven’t any thing better to offer her, perhaps not as good, so I might as well leave her there.”

The students discovered that Lucile was the subject of a bitter custody
battle between Arline and Roy. She describes her anguish at
their separation in this letter to her mother.

One of a series of photographs showing Arline and daughter Lucile
in Beulah. Arline’s hair is noticeably dark; she was a natural blond.

As we read the variety of letters, it was clear that this was more than just Arline’s story, it was also the story of the many women she knew and loved.

Michelle shared a letter from Arline’s father written when his youngest daughter, Mercy, had gone off with a traveling salesman and been reported kidnapped,

“Any crook can get those articles to sell on commission just so long as he pays for the samples he uses,” wrote Eliphaz Kinsel, “. . . we want to have him arrested at once for white slavers are forcing Mercy to using drugs. Your mother said he forced her to use drugs and . . . keeps her clothes locked up all the time.”

Mercy Kinsel and Angus MacPhee.
Elopement or Kidnapping?

Yellowed news clippings added authority to Papa Kinsel’s warning, but the lovely wedding photograph of Mercy and Angus MacPhee contradicted the story. Mercy looks tenderly at Angus, her gloved hand resting comfortably on his leg. He returns her look with a bit of a Scottish smile – was he really a con man who would sweep a young schoolteacher off her feet and force her into drugged prostitution? More snapshots from later years show their three young children. Without the photographs to balance her father’s letters, Mercy’s story was quite different.

Mercy’s letter to her mother announcing her marriage to Angus.
The students were quite surprised that she would tell
her mother such news in a letter.

The final day of class, my students came to my home for breakfast. It is a tradition I initiated my first year of teaching and have enjoyed continuing. Together we viewed a slide show of photos from Arline’s trunk, the sighs (and a few tears) bore witness to the project’s success.

Student Comments

Arline's story is one of family, friends, love, friction, and passion. It's almost an early twentieth century soap opera. Arline was strong; someone I admire. She is a woman I would love to have a conversation with. And so I am glad to have gotten to know her through these letters. It's a great story. – Madison

Arline's story is fascinating- it's heartbreaking and powerful, giving a woman's personal experience of the time period while also looking at her own personal experiences and remembering her. Reading about her and her family and life makes history in general much more personal. After giving so much time to the project and getting more and more involved, it becomes very enticing and you want to keep reading about her. – Meaghan

I like Arline. She wasn’t afraid to be herself. -- Camille

P.S. Has this project changed the students’ attitude toward the value of written letters?

“Absolutely, in fact this summer my friends and I will be traveling for the most part and so we'll write letters to each other to keep in touch. Both for communication purposes and to be able to look back on these letters and say, "This was the summer of '08." In my opinion, people today should write more letters.”

“This project has helped me appreciate letters and the stories it can piece together if written regularly. It becomes history- of a country, of a family, of a relationship, of a person. Letter writing is very under appreciated in society.”

Article & Photographs
Copyright © 2008 Denise May Levenick


Anonymous Anonymous said...


What a great legacy that your grandmother left - many of us wish for that level of insight into an ancestor's life! I think that was a fantastic idea for a school project, and I'm glad your students not only enjoyed it but learned something. I hope it inspires a few of them to take a closer look at their own ancestors are learn more about the times they lived.


July 4, 2008 at 7:20 AM  
Blogger Lidian said...

What a wonderful project for your students - and what a wonderful legacy your grandmother left you! She was truly an amazing woman. Thanks for sharing her story with us.

July 4, 2008 at 10:22 AM  
Blogger Becky Wiseman said...

Absolutely wonderful! Thank you for sharing your grandmother's story and the story behind the project. I must admit to feeling a tinge of jealousy at your having all those letters and photographs, LOL. What a wonderful "problem" to have!

July 4, 2008 at 3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aunt Denise,
This is a great article and I really enjoyed reading it. What an exciting way to teach the girls about the past as well as keeping the spirit of family alive. I am sure that they all now have so much interest in discovering some history about their own families.
Love, Heather

July 4, 2008 at 6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish that I'd had the opportunity to work on such a project when I was in high school - and that my family left such a paper trail behind them. Hopefully other teachers will learn from your experience and figure out how pass the past along to their students in the tangible way that you have done.

July 7, 2008 at 8:36 AM  
Blogger Family Curator said...

Thank you fM for the chance to share this project. Maybe there is a future for developing a program that would bring personal history to even more students! It would be wonderful to see the field grow.

July 7, 2008 at 9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Footnote Maven shared your site with me; she is my niece's relative. I am an English teacher near Sacramento and LOVED this fabulous "assignment". How wonderfully engaging it was for disengaged seniors!

July 30, 2008 at 2:24 PM  
Blogger Family Curator said...

Thanks, JBG. It was great fun and so rewarding. Let me know if you want to try something similar; I'd be glad to help any way I can.

August 7, 2008 at 4:35 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home