Professional Writing Students and College Partner with NAACP in Berks History Project
By Laura Hirneisen, Senior in Professional Writing
Thanks to a new project undertaken by students and faculty at Penn State Berks, African-American contributions to Berks County history will no longer be overlooked. A work in progress, the project will culminate in a small book and Web site. We also anticipate creating specialized booklets aimed at students in elementary school.
The Professional Writing program is a leader in this pioneering venture, the first of its kind in Berks County in terms of content and scope. While information about Berks County’s history abounds, no existing published volumes deal solely with the county’s African-American history. As a result, students will have the exciting opportunity to pave new ground in historical research. Meanwhile, they will be focusing on an important, and all too often ignored, piece of history.
The project is also unique in that it requires a great deal of archival research. Because the history project spans three centuries—from the county’s eighteenth century inception to present day—students will need to conduct a great deal of research as they flesh out their topics.
According to Dr. Laurie Grobman, Associate Professor of English and project leader, the Reading Chapter of the NAACP approached Penn State Berks after identifying the need to document the area’s African-American history. A grant from the Department of Community and Economic Development to the Reading NAACP, as well as funding sources within Penn State, will cover the project costs.
Slated for completion in the spring of 2007, the project will unfold in several phases over its two-year duration. During Fall 2005, students in two classes researched and developed material and wrote the articles that will comprise the book and Web site. Students in Writing History, a special topics class offered as part of the Professional Writing program and taught by Dr. Gary Kunkelman, Instructor in Professional Writing, produced many articles for the booklets and Web site. Students in Ethnic America, a course in the American Studies program taught by Grobman, also produced several important articles for the book. Another class, Marketing Research, taught by Dr. Maggie Connor, Lecturer in Marketing, produced a content analysis of similar projects.
To conduct their research, students made trips to local historical repositories, including the Berks County Historical Society and the Central PA African American Museum. They also met with local historians, including Frank Gilyard, Director of the Central PA African American Museum.
The Berks County Historical Society granted each student a pass for research at its facility through the semester. Students also worked with Karen James, African-American Specialist with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, who spoke at Penn State Berks and met with students to discuss their individual projects.
“It’s a great opportunity for our students,” says Kunkelman. “Several are interviewing older community members for oral histories, and others are in archives, working with documents and artifacts that can be hundreds of years old. Usually, this doesn’t happen until graduate school.”
According to senior Professional Writing student Mary Domsicz, “The level of research has really been eye-opening, and unlike anything I’ve done before. It becomes infectious as you ‘hit’ information and the pieces start falling into place.”
Kunkelman explains, “They’re finding a good deal of completely new information, including things that are really exciting. For example, one student uncovered a previously unknown diary that talks about the abolitionists in Berks.”
Phase II of the project begins in the spring of 2006. Students in the Information Sciences and Technology program will design the Web site, and students in O’Connor’s Principles of Marketing class will develop ways to market the book. By the fall of 2006, the book will be printed and the Web site will be posted. Organizers plan to unveil both initiatives at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in November 2006.
Phases III and IV are expected to take place between fall 2006 and spring 2007, when students in the college’s new Education baccalaureate degree program will use the book and Web site to develop reading materials geared toward young children. The teachers-in-training plan to work with these materials in local elementary schools during Black History Month in February 2007.
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