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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    Genealogy or Family History?

    This project has made it clear that assembling a personal history is going to involve "doing genealogy" as well. The students wanted to know who's who immediately, they wanted to know dates and relationships to help them understand the people they were reading about. We found little gems of information buried in the letters, now I have to pull out those nuggets and add them to the overall family tree.

    One of my favorite comments turned up in a letter from one sister to another, "I told the boys when they woke up that today was their Aunt Minnie's 50th Birthday." Checking the date on the letter and Minnie's death certificate verified that date, but it was so much more personal to read that a little sister still remembered her siblings birthday when they were both grown women with children of their own.

    My mom has been researching her family line in earnest for many years and she is now very pleased to have drawn me into the net. It looks like I will be taking her to the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree later this month. . . or maybe she is taking me!



    Class Breakfast at my home
    (I am wearing orange).

    Today was the last day of class and we celebrated with breakfast at my house. I started hosting the class my first year of teaching 11 years ago, so it seems fitting to bring back the tradition in my last semester. Of course, it's convenient that I live less than a block from the school and everyone can walk down the winding road to pass through the iron school gates and into the wooden gate at my home. Some years we have had tea together, sometimes lunch or brunch depending on the daily schedule.

    The girls were finally able to view the DVD slide show I made of the photos and newsclippings. It came out great, but wouldn't play on the school Mac computers (must be something to do with being compiled and burned on my PC at home). Everyone crowded into the TV room and watched Arline and Mercy come to life on the big screen. I added a soundtrack of rather plaintive music, and caught several sighs and exclamations. They were excited to put the faces to the names on the letters they had read. Over and over I heard them remark on Arline's beauty; of course, they loved her clothes too. I think their favorite photograph is the one where Arline stands against the light on the porch of the ranch house in Beulah, Colorado. She is wearing a long loose dress and what looks like an embroidered dressing gown. Her hair hangs in a long braid. It is a lovely photograph, part of the Beulah series featuring Arline and Lucile in several shots.

    Before the girls returned to school I was able to read them a letter that my mother wrote when she heard about our project. She shared a few memories of Arline and wrote,

    I am so pleased that Denise has shared her Grandmother's letters with you. I believe she wanted women to know what it was like for a young woman in the early 1900's. It is remarkable to think some of you are holding paper and reading words that were written so many years ago. . . Enjoy the letters and look for the messages my mother was hiding in each one. We can be thankful for our rights as women. We can do any job we want to and develop our skills and interests without discrimination.
    None my students wanted to trade places with Arline. Their own lives seemed complicated enough. . . they just shook their heads at the notion of living in the early 20th century.


    Review Time

    Students could be reviewing for exams, but instead want to talk about the project. Although they have really only studied a few of the letters individually, the group shared highlights with one another and then began to offer thoughts on the people involved. I sketched a rough family tree on the whiteboard and answered questions for a while. Some were quick to see the obvious -- four marriages, four daughters. Some focused on the subtext, praising Arline and Mercy for their independent spirits, trying to break out of the confines of their 1910 community.

    Most students had finished a course in U.S. History, many also completed U.S. Women's History; they had a good overview of the battle for voting and property rights. Seen in the light of the larger scale of American history, their story is remarkable because it is "everywoman's" story. They weren't rich, famous, or privileged. They were just very ordinary women.

    The girls who want to continue this summer were especially enthusiastic; some have vowed to write letters home from their adventures this summer rather than rely only on email. The longevity of paper and ink seems to have really impressed them. Who would have thought a few years ago as we were hearing the tech bell to convert to the digital age, that we would learn paper is still preferred for preservation?


    Finishing Up

    Clearly, some students could continue this project for quite a while. Some still needed to finish transcriptions and corrections. Others were ready to talk about the letters and share their thoughts on what they discovered. We put off the discussion until tomorrow; they are anxious for answers, but I am afraid that we will mostly generate more questions.

    I finished up my slide show over the weekend. About 8 minutes of photos arranged chronologically with text and music. I decided to keep the time frame to the period of the letters we have read, birth through 1920 or so.


    Day 4 - The Transcription Project

    Today was our last full day on the project. When I walked into the computer lab, three girls came to me talking all at once about their letters and how much they enjoyed the project. Some wanted to keep transcribing and asked if they could work on it over the summer! It is exciting to see their enthusiasm.

    By the end of the class period each student had completed at least two letters -- transcribed, proofread with a partner, corrections made, and data entry sheet completed. Some girls had finished three or even four letters.

    Our final day of the unit will be to discuss what we learned. I find that they are anxious to share the letters they transcribed and want to hear the stories from other letters in an effort to put together the bigger picture. We will save that for Tuesday!


    History Class Joins the Project

    Students in U.S. Women's History are also helping with the transcriptions. With only a few class sessions to spare, they were able to work collaboratively to transcribe several letters. The instructor tells me that their curiosity is piqued.... they want the full story. We may try this again next year and work it into the regular curriculum as a unit on primary sources.


    Day 3 -- The Transcription Project

    What a difference a little experience can make. When I walked into the library today where our class was meeting, I found every student already occupied at a computer. The letters were open on their computer monitors and the girls were pouring over the archaic handwriting. I could hardly get them to look away for a moment as I held up the original photos and news clippings I brought to show.

    "Who had the letter about Mercy's kidnapping?"
    A hand shot up, "I did. It talked about white slavery too."
    "Here is the news article," I said, showing the girls the original and reading "Thinks Sister Used as Victim of Hypnotist."
    At first a few girls were listening and looking at the photos; soon the entire class was gathered around the large conference table with jaws dropped.
    "She was kidnapped?"
    "Well, the family thought so, but here is her photo with the man . . . "
    "He looks so nice," they repeated. "He looks normal."
    "Yes, he does, and she married him."
    "Were they happy? Did they stay married?"
    "Not really. He did leave her, and her daughter had mental problems."
    "What else?" They wanted to know.
    I could only answer, "I don't know. Read your letters today and see what mysteries you can uncover or solve."
    They actually raced back to their computers to continue reading.

    Students were so quietly intent on their reading that the library felt like. . . a library. After a time, as they finished transcribing their leters, the girls began to read aloud their transcription with a partner to check their work. Now they knew the stories of two letters. Some girls were ready for another and began a second or third transcription. With one day of our library time remaining, it seems likely that nearly everyone will meet the assignment of transcribing two letters.


    Day 2 - The Transcription Project

    I feel like I ran a marathon today. Fifteen to twenty students in the library, all excited, but absolutely confused by the 100 year old handwriting. I raced from student to student helping with identification, file opening/saving problems, and basic questions. They have never heard of three-and four-letter state abbreviations such as Colo. and Tex. and see them as possible words. Then, "w" looks like "m" and "o" and "e" seem impossible to decipher.

    Just as the period was nearing its end, I felt the mood in the room shift. The girls began talking about what stories in the letters, and the people revealed in the words. Now they were reading for the tale, not just the words themselves.


    Day 1 - The Transcription Project

    D-Day! The first group of my English classes is ready to begin. Last week I showed them a short PowerPoint Presentation on working with primary sources. It included slides of an actual letter and the students were surprised by the handwriting. We read it aloud and discussed the conventions of early 20th century social correspondence such as beginning each letter with date and place, referring to recently received letters, etc. I think the email, texting generation found the idea rather antiquated.

    We met in the library today where we were able to spread out on the large tables and also have access to the computers around the room. It was an ideal space. Fortunately, I had taken the time to make a listing of all the letters with a few notations: File Number, Handwritten or Typed, Number of Pages. I decided to initially assign one letter to each student, and selected shorter pieces that I hoped would not be overly difficult.

    When they opened the files on the computer screen I could hear the sighs. The girls were looking at another language, one they could not begin to decipher. I raced from student to student throughout the 50-minute period, deciptering words, making suggestions, coaching guesses. By the end of the class, they seemed to have caught on but I was exhausted.


    Scanning Update

    I am running out of time for scanning letters as I also want to scan some photos and put together a presentation. Haven't been able to process the letters in the AskSam database, but have worked up a Data Entry Form for the students to complete. It should help organize their thoughts about the letters as well.

    I now have over 100 letters in the archival folders, and am scanning hit-and-miss style to catch ones that are a) suitable, and b) interesting.

    Total now 93 letters. May need to complete more.


    Reading the News

    In thinking about how to present the story of Arline's life to the students, I began looking through some of her news clippings. What a treasure. I will have to save some it for this summer when I have more time, but for now I can at least scan the most glaring headlines-- "Girl in Power of Hypnotist," "Forces Chauffeur to Aid Kidnapping," and my personal favorite "Husband's Language Too Vile to Mention."

    Total News clippings scanned, 16.


    Photo Scanning

    Took a break from the letters and started scanning photos yesterday; it certainly goes quicker than 6 and 7 page letters. They are beautiful and so fun to see in a larger size.

    I came across some loose pages from a photo album and have been able to reconstruct some of the original photo displays. Evidently a few photos fell off or were taken off the pages; too bad for us today.

    Total photos scanned 26.


    Scanning Continued

    I figure that I need about 100 letters for the students to work with because I plan to require that each student complete at least 2 transcriptions. The U.S. Women's History teacher heard me talking about the project and wants to have her students work on it as well. Our total is about 50 students, so 100 letters may not even be enough. More scanning. . .

    Total letters scanned is now 89.


    Establishing a Transcription Protocol

    In just a few weeks I will be at the mercy of 35 eager 17- and 18-year-old young women eager to read Arline's mail. I have decided that we need a very streamlined method for the madness for the project to succeed. The seniors should have the least difficulty, but some of the younger students may have problems with complicated instructions and reading the 19th century handwriting.

    I've developed an handout that gives the overall objective of the project and establishes a few guidelines:

    • read the letter through completely before beginning the transcription
    • be true to the text; don't add or subtract words or phrases
    • reserve judgment about the subject matter
    We will be using a Clear Text procedure; word-for-word transcription with notations on the author's corrections placed outside the text itself. This should make the transcripts more enjoyable to read, and be easier for the students.

    I'm also working on a PowerPoint presentation to give an overview of the project and the procedure.


    Square Bracket Workaround Doesn't Work

    Ugh, it just doesn't work to use alternate characters for square brackets. They look WEIRD. I think they will work in the transcriptions, and I will have to use curly brackets in the database fields if necessary. At least { and } look a little like [ and ].

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