Textbooks & Teaching Home
Journal of American History

2002 Syllabi
Teaching outside the Box

Editors' Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

U.S. Women Activists
Catherine Badura
Syallbus: 1998, 2000 | Article

The Black Athlete
Amy Bass
Syllabus | Article

Recovering Detroit's Past for History & Theater
Charles Bright

American History Since 1865
A. Glenn Crothers
Syllabus | Article

Intro to American History
John J. Grabowski
Syllabus | Article

American History
Cecilia Aros Hunter & Leslie Gene Hunter
Syllabus | Article

In Search of America's Civil Rights Movement
Alyssa Picard & Joseph J. Gonzalez
Syllabus | Article

Out of Many: Histories of the U.S.
David A. Reichard
Syllabus | Article

Women & Social Movements
Kathryn Kish Sklar
Syllabus | Article

Law & Society in American History
John Wertheimer
Syllabus | Article

Colonial & Revolutionary History of the Southern Tidewater
James P. Whittenburg
Syllabus | Article

American National Character
Michael Zuckerman
Syllabus | Article

La Castaņa Project: A History Field Laboratory Experience

Cecilia Aros Hunter and Leslie Gene Hunter

Our project, La Castaņa, demonstrates the possibilities for teaching outside the box that emerge when an archivist and a history professor join forces to introduce survey-level students to historical research and the excitement of original and primary sources. Our team--Cecilia Aros Hunter, an archivist, and Leslie Gene Hunter, a historian--structured a laboratory experience in which students became discoverers and detectives, joining us in searching trunks, attics, garages, and other family storage areas for documents that will illuminate the history and culture of the peoples of the deep south Texas region in which our university is located.

Our collaboration takes place at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, about ninety miles from the Mexican border and about fifteen miles inland from the Gulf coast, between Brownsville and Corpus Christi, Texas. The university is the oldest in the area, and for seventy-five years it has served a bilingual and multicultural student body that tends to be from small towns and agricultural communities. The students have spent their lives on large ranches and small farms. Although the area is inhabited primarily by people of Mexican descent who speak Spanish, other ethnic communities exist where English is not the primary language; thus the area is both bilingual and multicultural. Recognizing this unique heritage, we named our venture La Castaņa, Spanish for "the trunk." Our project has both a pedagogical objective and a specific content goal--helping preserve local history. The two come together when our students realize that history is not something remote, dealing only with people in distant places and ancient times. Rather, we seek to make history immediate and relevant by showing students the drama of the lives of men and women in their local area. By promoting a concept of the archives as a laboratory, we bring students to an understanding of how history is determined, researched, written, and preserved. Students realize that they are making history and are the results of history.

At first we asked our students to focus on locating information about the Mexican and Mexican American communities. We maintained that despite the growing interest in Hispanics, who were quickly becoming the largest minority group in the United States, not enough documents have been collected to report the history of the group accurately, and especially the history of Mexican immigrants into Texas. Although there is a strong community of Tejanos (people of Mexican descent who were in Texas before 1848, when they became Americans as part of the spoils of war), an even larger group of newer immigrants jealously guard their documents. They fear that those documents may be their only link with the past or that their history will not be highly regarded and cared for by archives that have traditionally been Anglo establishments. In time we came to appreciate that other communities had immigrated into the area in the early twentieth century after the discovery of artesian water and the development of irrigation made farming as important to the economy as ranching had been.

We thus expanded our project to ask students to find documents reflecting any ethnic cultural experience, rural or urban, in south Texas. We believed that the youth and enthusiasm of our students could inspire their relatives to seek the needed documents and perhaps to donate them to an archives or to allow us to copy them, thus creating collections that would enrich not only local history but also the larger historical narrative. We do not ask students to seek public documents in courthouses or other governmental agencies, nor do we stress oral history. Our project asks students to locate documents in private possession before they fade, are destroyed or damaged, or disappear. We are careful to explain the difficulty of preserving paper in a hostile environment. South Texas is located near the water and is thus hot and humid, the home of many insects, rodents, and pests who enjoy destroying old paper.

We frame our student laboratory exercise as an alternative to a traditional term paper or book review. In preparation for the assignment, the archivist visits the class to explain the types of materials that are generally collected and the methods by which they are preserved and stored. Students learn that archivists catalog and categorize the information needed by historians, and they discover how historians, following the protocols of archival search strategies, depend upon archives for materials that allow them to find, analyze, interpret, and write about historical facts.

The project requires students to:

1. Locate information about a cultural or historical resource in their home areas or the area of the school.

2. Prepare a survey cover sheet, composed by the historian and archivist, that is included with the assignment. The survey sheet (a copy appears at the end of this essay) includes the name of the potential donor, an address, a map to help locate the donor if his or her residence is rural, and an inventory of the materials located. We ask students to introduce the idea of donating the documents to the South Texas Archives and Special Collections at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and thus the survey form asks if the owners of documents might be interested in donating them or allowing them to be copied for preservation and research.

3. Write a five-to-seven-page paper evaluating the documents and explaining the significance they might have to future researchers. The student analyzes what the documents may show scholars and the general public about the local Anglo, black, Hispanic, or other cultural community, culture, and way of life. The student then suggests why the items should be included in the collection at the archives.

We do not ask students to "collect" the documents they use, but only to locate them. We emphasize that students should not take physical possession of any documents; they should not remove them from their owners, even to photocopy or to bring them to class. Removing documents, we explain, might hinder the establishment of provenance, the critical archival procedure for determining the creator of a document and the custodians of the document up to the point of archival deposit. They learn that archives establish the authenticity of documents through such procedures, and that a historian relies on the archivist to establish validity.

We remind our students that history is not just about the rich and famous, or infamous. It is also about the everyday happenings of everyday people and the occurrences that explain the contributions of Anglo, African American, Mexican American, and other communities in their local area. In seeking materials, students are urged to think historically about the types of information that will help scholars describe that area. We particularly ask them to seek documents in the following categories:

1. Personal papers and family documents, including correspondence, diaries, and notes.

2. Business documents, including records, bills, tax receipts, banking information, records from ranching and farming activities, and related materials.

3. Newspapers, especially locally created foreign-language newspapers that keep alive the written literary heritage of the culture.

4. Political activity documents, including speeches, records of organizations, flyers, and other pertinent documents. Of special interest would be records of the activities of local ethnic and racial community organizations.

5. Church and religious items and documents, including the records of auxiliary church organizations.

6. Items related to law enforcement.

7. Military documents and items related to military service.

8. Written works that record oral literature, folklore, songs (corridos), and traditional medicine.

9. Works of art, including paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.

10. Documents relating to athletics and recreational pursuits.

11. Photographs of activities, dwellings, events, and community leaders.

12. Documents and other items related to educational activities, including certificates, diplomas, grade cards, reports, significant assignments, and items showing the levels of education of the community or reflecting the work of teachers.

13. Immigration documents and items about the immigrant experience.

14. Climatic information that might indicate changes in history due to such events as the huge hurricanes that have destroyed the area or droughts that have devastated the agricultural communities.

15. Documentation of professional activities, especially concerning law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and other professions.

Our students have made remarkable finds since we began our project in 1993. One located eighteen love letters written in Spanish in the local community during the 1930s. At that time south Texas took in many immigrants fleeing the turmoil resulting from the Mexican Revolution of 1910, some of whom were young men still actively involved in revolutionary groups. The authors were an activist young man and the young woman that he was eager to marry. The letters reveal the traditional culture in which they lived: Although the young woman was eager to marry her suitor, she met resistance from her family, which adamantly opposed the marriage for two reasons. Family members were upset by the man's sympathy with the policies and ideas of the Mexican Revolution. They were even more opposed to the marriage because he was not a Roman Catholic. Because she could not gain her parents' approval, the young lady did not feel she could marry the young man. He sent the customary intermediary to try to persuade the parents, but the marriage seemed almost impossible. The woman was hesitantly willing to leave her parents, siblings, and the other members of her extended family. Ultimately, approval was given and the couple married, but the family disowned the young woman. This rich correspondence vividly illustrates the persistence of the area's traditional culture, which bound even these lovers to its standards and mores. Through the letters, this student explored how a major event, the Mexican Revolution of 1910, affected an ordinary person in a seemingly very distant era. The student was profoundly moved because her forebears wrote the love letters.

Another student found hidden away a bound volume of the local high school's student newspaper, including issues published one week before and the month after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Following the U.S. entry into World War II, the school newspaper reported the chagrin of students whose fathers, brothers, and friends were being sent to fight in a distant land. The newspaper reported how students prepared to do their part for the war effort. Students were involved in a great historical event. In reporting local reaction, the school newspaper is an illuminating primary source.

When one student asked if her family had anything she could use for the project, her mother looked at her with confusion. When she fully explained the purpose of the project, her mother gave her a pile of photographs and other family items. The student later reported with wonder "the multitude of things that can really be learned from South Texas in such a small chunk of history." She found framed photographs of great-grandparents, showing their activities, their style of dress, and the changes in the appearance of their surroundings. Yet another student found over two hundred letters long forgotten in an old cedar chest given to her grandmother when she graduated from high school. The letters, from her grandfather to her grandmother, began in 1938 and continued through World War II. Tied with old silk ribbons, they had not been touched for over fifty years. The student learned about affection, fear, turmoil, and the uncertainty with which they faced the war. She had not previously even known about her family's involvement in World War II.

Another student thrilled to the "great treasure" discovered in her family's trunk--her great-grandmother's journals, begun in 1918 when she was only eight years old. Written in Spanish, they described the hardships the family had to endure because of the Mexican Revolution, which led the family to move to south Texas.

The documentation for most of the projects does not come to the archives immediately, nor do the possessors generally allow them to be copied, but they are located and appreciated by the students, who learn about their own proud and rich history. Some of the documents arrive at the archives years later when the student who did the original paper inherits them.

On one level, this project results in the use of higher-order thinking skills, including analysis, synthesis, and evaluation; it requires students to examine documents and to determine if they are historically significant by considering the circumstances surrounding their production and by drawing on an understanding of the era. On another level, students who handle documents from the past come to relate to history as "real." They come away with a better understanding of their own history and the history of the area in which they live.

Admittedly, this project posed some challenges for students who did not hail from the local area and thus were too far from their homes easily to ask grandparents or other older relatives for the information they sought. We urged these students to talk to people in senior citizens' establishments, both live-in facilities and those that simply serve the elderly. Social services administrators, ministers, priests, and social workers also helped direct us to elderly people who might have treasure troves of documents. Thus, we believe that our project, La Castaņa, can be undertaken in any community, preserving history, connecting students to history, and facilitating the collaboration of archivists and historians.

Appendix: Survey Sheet

La Castaņa

A Survey of Historical and Cultural Resources of South Texas

1. Name of potential donor

2. Address



If the address is in a rural area please include a map showing how to get there.

3. Inventory of items. Include dates; amounts//numbers; conditions. (Attach additional sheets if needed.)

4. If items can not be donated, can they be copied and the copies stored by the South Texas Archives? If so, what restrictions would be placed on them?

5. What restrictions would be placed on any of the items if they are donated?

6. Is the owner of the documents/items willing to donate them to the South Texas Archives?

                  Yes                   No

 If yes, when

7. Student's name




Cecilia Aros Hunter is university archivist at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. She has been a public and private school teacher and administrator and serves on the Texas State Historical Records Advisory Board. Leslie Gene Hunter is a Regents Professor in the Department of History at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. In 1997 he was named one of ten Minnie Stevens Piper Outstanding Teachers for the state of Texas.

Readers may contact Cecilia Aros Hunter at <> and Leslie Gene Hunter at <>.