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Teaching House Museums
by Helen McKenna-Uff



For all their differences, some of the similarities between Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe are striking.  Both were innovative nineteenth century authors who dramatically altered the world literary scene.  Whitman revolutionized poetry; Poe invented the modern detective story and also helped pave the way for the modern psychological novel.  Both authors struggled financially, toiling away at poorly compensated editorial and critical writing when their hearts were devoted to poetry, suffering the frustration of not having their works receive the respect that both were certain they deserved.  Both also lived for a time in the Delaware Valley.  Because they were not wealthy, their homes there were far less grand than those of some other well-known American writers, writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain of Hartford, Connecticut, but because of their popularity, their houses have been preserved, and they stand today as important museums dedicated to the teaching of their lives and art.  Close to the Delaware River, Whitman had a residence at 328 Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, from 1884 until his death in 1892, and Poe lived at 234 (now 530) North Seventh Street in Philadelphia (across the river from Camden) from 1843-44.  Recently, both Whitman's and Poe's homes have undergone renovations; both are open to the public and available for teachers to bring their students.  This piece investigates how the Whitman House and the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site collaborate with teachers to provide rewarding educational experiences and to develop pedagogies that make creative use of these artifacts.




Some teachers use house museums as a way to introduce their students to a particular subject without first exposing them to any of the work or history of the resident.   Unfortunately, the results can be poor.  Here's one scenario:  A bus pulls up in front of a museum.  A teacher stands up and reminds the group, "Now you know, this is the first trip I'm taking you on this year.  These trips are expensive and I went to a lot of work to get us here.  If you misbehave, I'm warning you, that's it.  Listen to everything you hear at this museum because there's going to be a quiz.  And we're going to be studying this author in the Spring [it's now November] so the more you learn now the easier this will be in April."  Twenty-five eighth graders reluctantly rouse themselves from their seats and drag their coats and bags behind them. They are greeted by a guide who asks them, "What works of the author have you read?"  "None."  "Who can tell me what this author is famous for?"  [No response.]  "Why do you think your teacher brought you here today?"  "To get out of the classroom."  "Well, I have a lot to tell you about and little time to do it in.  Let's try to make the most of this experience and have some fun."  The group listlessly shuffles in behind the guide.


The above scenario, thankfully, is becoming less common as house museums devise ways to make their sites more education friendly.  What is obvious to museum workers is that the more care teachers take to prepare their classes for field trips, the more rewarding those trips become for students.


Improving preparatory materials to help focus the visits of future school trips greatly enhances the experience for the students.  Teachers have long-term relationships with their students and can build on prior lesson plans to make smooth transitions into new material; they know their groups and know what works are most likely to capture their students' interests.  According to Margaret O'Neil, who was until recently curator of the Whitman House (she is now Research Interpretive Specialist for the State of New Jersey), "Often the students come with no background.  It's nice when the teacher has planned in advance and the teacher has taught Whitman.  Using the preparatory materials that we've sent them makes such a difference.  The students come, and they're excited."  Recently, both the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site and the Walt Whitman House have developed handbooks to assist and encourage teachers to prepare their classes to visit these sites.




Under the National Park Service program called "Parks as Classrooms," the Poe site received a grant to develop a teachers' handbook.  The site had been using a handbook compiled many years ago, a cut-and-paste affair that was embarrassingly outdated.  Park Ranger Joanne Schillizzi was assigned the job of handbook author and went to the task with zeal.  One of the benefits of writing a new handbook was the opportunity it afforded the site to formally request feedback from the teachers who visit.  Schillizzi developed a questionnaire to survey teachers and students to see what they like and don't like.  In addition, Schillizzi asked the teachers what they would appreciate in terms of support material.  In order to understand the teachers' needs, Schillizzi familiarized herself with curriculum standards, and age-appropriate activities.  Teachers wanted the museum to (1) encourage critical thinking; (2) get students to work as teams; and (3) provide as much interaction as possible.


Teachers' responses to Schillizzi's questionnaire were reassuring:  most said that they didn't want to see the program changed at all.  Schillizzi recalls that many of the teachers mentioned appreciating how often rangers quoted Poe; they felt that,   "If the students are going to be in Poe's home they should hear Poe’s actual words."  Most of the teachers who bring students to the Poe site teach English.  However, the needs and perspectives of the teachers were varied.  The site had been providing teachers with a lot of biographical information about Poe prior to a school visit.  The teachers were very clear about wanting more historical information to be made available to them beforehand.  As Schillizzi reports, "They wanted easy access information that would help put Poe and his stories into context with his times and contemporaries.  They also wanted 'fun facts,' things that would help enliven what they were already doing in the classroom.  We did the research for them and then gave them the resources so [that], if they wanted to, they could direct their students to do further research.  Also, teachers wanted to know where Poe got his ideas.  They don't have time to research someone like Mabbot [a Poe scholar who tracked down, with astonishing care, Poe's sources for all his major works]. "


When asked what the Poe site offered that the teachers most valued, the responses were sometimes surprising.  One teacher especially valued the emphasis we put on the fact that Poe could not function when drinking, dispelling the myth that alcohol inspired Poe creatively and helped him to write.  Another teacher had spent time with her fourth-grade students illustrating the value of inflection and expression when reading aloud, which was reinforced by the ranger's recitation of Poe's works.  Some come to the Poe site to illustrate to their students some of the principles of how to write a short story; others come to investigate the work of Poe in cultural context, Philadelphia's heritage, or architectural style.


Museum staff at these sites do in-depth research of the resident's life and times.  Teachers who are teaching a topic for a day, a week, or even an entire semester, would not be likely to have the time to research this one author at the level of the site's staff.  Indeed, a major reason to visit a house museum with a classroom is the staff, whose job it is to present the subject in a way that hopefully inspires the visitor to develop his or her interest further.


For the handbook, Schillizzi looked over the curriculum standards, and, with those in mind, compiled research resources, including primary sources that are often quoted in the standard Poe biographies.  Students may use the primary sources to gain understanding of Poe's life, to recognize that various Poe biographers have edited this material to support their biases: that Poe is a maniac or a drug addict, a hack, etc. In fact, one chapter of the handbook, "A Reputation Ruined," illustrates how Poe's enemy, Rufus Griswold, libeled Poe and manipulated primary source material to back his lies.  A student activity in that chapter has students investigate the subtle ways that Griswold changed the primary material, exposing the students to scholarly inquiry and sound research skills. 




As at the Poe site, a typical school tour of the Whitman House starts with a video.  O'Neil often conducts a slide presentation to "give them [the students] some context and background of how new the United States was.  There wasn't a cultural identity formed yet."  I asked her to describe an ideal student visit to her site.  What she described was an actual visit from fifth-grade students of the Oaklyn Public School, Oaklyn, New Jersey, led by Linda Hess.  Hess was one of the teachers who wrote the handbook for the Whitman House and developed the pre- and post-visit lesson plans for the fourth through sixth grades, consisting of six or more classroom sessions.  The project was funded by a grant from the Geraldine Dodge Foundation.


O'Neil regarded the Oaklyn students' visit as one of the most rewarding experiences she had had with a school group.  As she recalls, "Hess had found many interesting tie-ins for her students.  Oaklyn Public School is in the shadow of the Walt Whitman Bridge [a bridge that spans the Dealware River, connecting Pennsylvania to New Jersey].  The bridge is what the students associated with the name 'Walt Whitman.'  Hess used the bridge as a point of departure.  The class went into the history of how the bridge was named.  Another unit investigated how other famous or familiar objects got their names.  Hess tied this unit in with some of the objects in the collection that the children would see when they visited the Whitman House.  Among the objects and their makers, they studied the history of daguerreotypes, named for inventor Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre.  They learned about the Philadelphia hat-maker, John B. Stetson, and the style hat that was named after him.  Hess told her class that when they visited the Whitman House they would see a daguerreotype of Whitman and the trademark Stetson hat that belonged to him:  "The students came to the Whitman House so excited about Walt Whitman; they were jumping out of their skins. They made really interesting connections."  Showing the students the famous frontispiece from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, an engraving of the daguerreotype of Whitman in which he is dressed in casual attire, shirt collar open and hat cocked, O'Neil remarks, "I often ask the students why they think Walt would have chosen such an image. I ask them, 'if you were writing a book for the first time, what kind of picture would you like of yourself?  Would you be all dressed up, or would you be wearing your baseball cap?'  So this one little fellow was just squirming—he had to speak—and he said, 'Its like the free verse of clothes.'  So he absolutely made the connection. This is someone who is not following the rules, who's got his own agenda.  It was wonderful.  So what a valuable experience they had as fifth graders."


Hess chose poems to read with her fifth-graders that she believed were the most accessible, including "I Hear America Singing."  The students then wrote their own Whitman-esque poem, "I Hear Oaklyn School Singing," cataloguing all the things that they cherished in and about their school.  Obviously, the preparation beforehand—coordinating lesson plans with Whitman's writings, his home, and the objects in it—allowed these students to gain a deep appreciation for the author and poetry in general.  The success of this experience with fifth-graders led O'Neil to remark that "It's unfortunate that we don't get them here until high school.  Teachers have it set in their mind that this is not appropriate for younger grades."  As O'Neil observes, 'One of my favorite of Whitman's poems is "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."  I think it comes in handy so often, because it's very accessible.  I think tenth graders could absolutely understand what he's doing there.  There's something so compelling about his reaching through time and saying, 'You, the next generation, or so many generations hence.  Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.'  It really reaches out to you from beyond.  I think you'd have to be pretty hardened not to have that reach you.  I think that's a good place to start.  And when you visit here, you can go down the street and see the river.  He could go down the street and ride the ferries, which he loved to do."


When asked about the value of visiting a place in person as opposed to talking about it in the classroom, Hess said she could "talk about Whitman until" she's "blue in the face" and the children might still not be able to put his life and work into context.  Hess said that she herself is a "visual and tactile" style of learner and that visits and field trips greatly help those kinds of students.  "Seeing his little home," she said, "his actual deathbed, the shoes he wore, help to bring the man to life."




The Poe site has a very active schedule of visitation from school groups.  As at the Whitman House, teachers are asked to make reservations in advance.  At the time of making a reservation, teachers are asked what kind of tour they are interested in.  Many have been bringing their classes to the Poe site for years, and most request the "Poe in Philly" program.  For "Poe in Philly," students are encouraged to work together.  As they enter, students are assigned the task of finding specific information from the exhibits and then sharing that information with the group.  From the exhibit called "Poe's Families," the students might be asked to identify what profession Poe's birth parents shared (acting).  Or they might be posed a question based on another exhibit, "Who was a contemporary of Poe's that said Poe was 'three fifths genius and two fifths sheer fudge'?" (James Russell Lowell).   The students then see a video about Poe, followed by a tour of the house.  Rangers conducting house tours usually work examples of Poe's fiction and poetry into their tour, sometimes having the students themselves read Poe's works.  At the end of the tour the ranger divides the visiting class into appropriate-sized teams and conducts a "Jeopardy" style quiz game based on the material covered in the program.  The children are usually very excited about the competition.


I have worked at the Poe site for six years and have seen first-hand how mesmerizing Poe's home can be.  Craig Ranshaw is a good example of a teacher who loves teaching Poe, and he spends no less than thirteen weeks covering Poe with his students.  "The first week," he says, they are "immersed in Poe's biography.  They see videos.  They work on a timeline."  Then the class is introduced to four story genres:  humor, horror, mystery and psychological. The students select one genre to investigate.  For humor, they look at an example of Poe's and one of Mark Twain's; for mystery, they look at Doyle's Sherlock Holmes; for horror, Lovecraft or King; for psychological, they read "Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and Poe's "William Wilson."  The next task is to compare and contrast the two examples from the genre they've chosen.  They analyze the writing styles of each author and explore how the life histories of the various writers may have influenced the work.  For their poetry unit, Ranshaw asks his Maple Shade, New Jersey, eighth-graders to explore four themes:  Romance, Love, Beauty, and Death.  Reading Poe's "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," and "The Bells," the students must identify, through citation, which of these themes is encountered in the poetry.  His students also work with themes in Poe stories:  domestic violence and alcoholism in "The Black Cat"; the social commentary of "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" and "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether."


Ranshaw appreciates visiting the Poe site for "the tangible evidence of Poe's physical presence. It's so cool that he actually lived there.  It makes him a more live figure, just to see where he had been."  Already familiar with Poe's family, students could envision the day-to-day existence of the family in this barren little house.  He said two locations in the house, in particular, visibly affected his students.  One was the claustrophobic basement, which may have inspired Poe's horror tale "The Black Cat."  The other was one of the bedrooms, where the students sat on the floor and read aloud Poe's "Annabel Lee," thought to be Poe's memorial to his wife, Virginia.  The ranger had explained how sick with tuberculosis Virginia was and how much the little family struggled and agonized to keep her healthy and comfortable.  Students marvelled:  "Virginia was actually here."  When recalling the visit, Ranshaw laughed, because his students chastised him:  Why, they wanted to know, hadn't he covered Poe's contributions to the science-fiction genre?  After thirteen weeks of preparation they wanted more!


Most people think of Poe much like his melancholy and tortured protagonist in "The Raven."  They are surprised to hear of long hours of disciplined work, surrounded by reference books and clippings.  It is difficult sometimes to paint this picture of Poe in the minds of visitors who are sure that Poe was some madman in the attic who merely recorded spontaneous visions and intoxicated hallucinations.  "Look at how twisted his stories are!" they protest.  "He'd have to be insane to come up with that material."  As one teacher remarked, she likes visiting the Poe site because we "explode the myths" of Poe getting ideas from alcohol or drugs, and instead show how he created in response to what was popular in his day.  Poe had to compete with every other would-be writer in America, who, Margaret Fuller complained, would write a story because they needed money to buy a new hat.


Instead of Poe-the-maniac, school groups hear about Poe-the-brilliant-editor (as the scholar Daniel Hoffman has noted, Poe was a "genius of compression").  A portrait of the Philadelphia of the 1840s is contrasted with the present-day city.  Students are introduced to Poe the loving husband who referred to his wife's bout with tuberculosis as "five years of insanity with awful moments of sanity."  They hear about Poe and Charles Dickens meeting in Philadelphia where they lamented the nonexistence of international copyright laws.  The struggles of Poe's daily life help illustrate how brilliant work can arise even when an artist is asked to cope with what seems to be insurmountable obstacles.  Many visitors think of Poe in New York, where he published "The Raven," or in Baltimore, where he died and is buried.  But it was for the six years that Poe spent in Philadelphia that he was in his top form, cranking out an astonishing number of original works while editing and criticizing the work of others.  When Virginia was diagnosed and her life was despaired of, Poe, who had lost his birth parents, his foster parents, his brother and grandmother in his early life, started to go downhill.  The family moved to New York and, as Arthur Hobson Quinn states in his book, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, "when Poe left Philadelphia . . . he left happiness behind him."  Students leave not just with the impression that Poe wrote creepy stories but with a better understanding of how minute and daily choices add up to a life.




In the early part of the twentieth century efforts began to preserve Whitman's home.  People from all over emerged with items that had belonged to Whitman:  his hat, shoes, bed, and so on.  When you tour the site, you see photographs of how the place looked in Whitman's time.  Many of the items in the photos are in the home today.  It is a wonderful feat of restoration.  As O'Neil observes, "Usually when you see Victorian restorations they're grand, huge, wealthy people's homes.  Whereas, this is how most people lived, in small spaces with lots of patterns and different colors all juxtaposed in a tight space."  As a young man, Whitman worked with his father, who was a house builder.  The family moved through Brooklyn and soon after they built one house they would move and build another, with Whitman doing some of that work himself.  O'Neil points out that "This type of house is the type of house that he would have worked on.  The silhouette of the streetscape right now, the little two-story wooden house sandwiched between the three-story brick masonry houses, that's how it was when he lived here.  So the three-story brick houses were built in the mid-1850s and that was the newer style.  It just made his little house seem all the more humble, and he referred to it as his 'shanty,' his 'chicken coop.'  It would have looked like something that was just waiting to be torn down to build another three-story masonry house."


"One of the important things happening while Whitman spent his time here was the growing urbanization of particularly this part of the country," O'Neil continues.  "And certainly you have examples of that here in Camden.  When he's living here, Elbridge Johnson is down the street, one block over. Johnson is working on his inventions and, ultimately, he is the founder of Victor Talking Machine Co., which then became merged with RCA.  We developed a chart of technological innovations, some of the major things happening in Camden.  For example the first telephones were in some drugstores in Camden by the year of Whitman's death.  What he was best known for during his time here in Camden was the Lincoln lectures that he did.  Most people are surprised about that.  It was a very dramatic presentation with a recitation of 'O Captain! My Captain!', everybody teary-eyed."


During the Civil War, Whitman would often visit the camps and hospitals of the soldiers to try to alleviate suffering.  O'Neil is often asked how Whitman would have felt about the prison now across the street from the house.  A thoroughly prepared interpreter, O'Neil had a passionate response, "It really bothers me when people say, 'Walt would have been right at home with that.'  What a superficial understanding of Whitman.  How can this great champion of freedom have felt comfortable with a prison across the street?  And all the wasted lives.  I think about how Whitman would have felt and we find evidence in his poetry, 'Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from the jambs! // Whoever degrades another degrades me . . . . and whatever is done or said returns at last to me"; "I speak the password primeval . . . . I give the sign of democracy; / By God!  I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.'  It's such a wonderful expression of freedom."


O'Neil has a clear vision for the Whitman site:  "The state owns the buildings adjoining Whitman's house.  Currently Whitman's home is the only one open to the public and interpreted.  Maximum capacity is 20, but that's very tight.  We have these other spaces which so much could be done with.  One of the things I've wanted to do since I first came here is to have a poetry room or a poetry corner where you can see the printed word on the wall and then you pick up a headset and hear someone who can really recite poetry beautifully reciting that verse.  I'd like to help put Whitman in context with nineteenth-century poetry:  Edgar Allan Poe, Longfellow, and other contemporaries could showcase what a departure Whitman was from the others.  I think people can't really quite get that unless you expose them to some of the other poets of the time.  And I'd like to offer some of the poets who came after Whitman, whether they acknowledge their debt to Whitman or not.  So that's what I would love to do.  We have the space for it."


O'Neil, having interpreted Whitman for some time now, could not resist some cataloguing of her own:  "We have artifacts that I'd like to exhibit.  We have letters, first editions; we have an embarrassment of riches.  And they need to be displayed but they need to be displayed correctly, with environmental controls.  There's a lot to do with these other buildings, so the question is how to organize these spaces.  I think it would be good to have some fresh perspectives." 




At the Poe site, we are just now catching our breath.  The site was closed for fourteen months for unexciting structural repair.  Now that we are finally reopened, we are looking at the site with fresh eyes.  Big changes could come, or not.  We're planning to plan.  In the meantime, the schools keep coming.  Schillizzi notes:  "Traditionally, we didn't get visits from fourth-graders, now we are.  This brings us a whole new challenge.  Different age groups have different curriculum standards.  The handbook is targeted for middle school because statistically that is the largest group of students that we get.  Ideally, we would offer different reading levels and activity levels for different age groups."  For now, teachers can adapt the handbook to their needs.


The value of house museums is their ability to open up new perspectives on a writer's life and culture, to remind students of the vitality of literature and history.  O'Neil remembers feedback she got from one group, music to the ears of any museum guide.  "The students were asked, 'What do you remember?  What did the visit mean to you?'  One of the students just hits the nail on the head when he said, 'Before we saw his house and saw all his stuff, he was just some guy in a book, and didn't seem real.  And once we saw his stuff, I believed that he really existed and was a real person.'  It seems like the obvious conclusion, but I think it can't be stated enough.  How many things are kids inundated with as they sit in a classroom and look at books?  It really does make the subject come alive when they have another kind of experience.  And there's that whole issue of the different styles of learning, the visual learner, the tactile, and so on.  Lots of those needs can be addressed in a setting like this."