Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017
Soeurette Morley’s enthusiasm for local history is infectious, “Kids sometimes say ‘I wish I lived somewhere more interesting.’ But I think for students of any area, whether you're in New York City or in the smallest town in Iowa, there's something to learn wherever you are. You should never feel that you live in an invaluable place.” Morley, an alumna of the History and Education program at Teachers College (TC), is now a 3rd grade teacher at Convent of the Sacred Heart, a prestigious all-girls Catholic school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
As an educator, Morley has made it her mission to give students a historical lens for looking at the world, “The kids at the school where I work walk into this beautiful building every day that they know nothing about. But why not help them understand how it was made, or why this room is here, or how the architecture was influenced; all of our day-to-day experiences are made richer when we know what came before.”
Even as a child, history was always Morley’s favorite subject, but her appreciation for the discipline deepened during her undergraduate studies at St. Lawrence University. There she spent a semester working with a local historian and was surprised to learn that Canton, the tiny town where her college was located, had played a central role in the history of the Civil War. “It was one of the smallest towns in New York, but more soldiers died from this town and the surrounding region than anywhere else in the state. I couldn’t believe it.” This experience solidified Morley’s appreciation for local learning.
Through her undergraduate studies, Morley came to realize that many of the historical narratives she had been taught in grade school were overly simplistic, and even harmful. “History has unfolded for me over the years. As a young person I learned everything from the point of view of people like Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson. Then I got to college and found out that those weren’t good men.” As Morley’s critical perspectives on history developed she wondered, “Why don't we teach kids this from the beginning?”
Morley was attracted to TC’s History and Education program both by her passion for historical research and by a burgeoning call to the vocation of teaching. “As I’ve grown, I’ve come to see history as constant uncovering and detective work. You take little pieces and use them to see this bigger picture and there's always more that can be brought in; It’s never finished. That’s what I want to teach kids earlier.”
While completing her master’s degree, Morley secured part-time work as an educator, first as an admissions interviewer, then as a teaching assistant, and eventually, as a full-time elementary school teacher with a classroom of her own. On top of her obligations at work and graduate school, Morley also came to TC as a new mother—her daughter, Harper, was just over a year old when she enrolled in the program. Morley’s advisor, Ansley Erickson, Associate Professor of History and Education, helped her carve out an academic path that balanced her diverse interests and professional goals, “The advising was incredible; I constantly felt supported. They want to work with you, especially if you're a working student. They want you to be able to make your research as relevant to your teaching practice as possible.”
Morley enjoyed the lively round-table discussions in her program’s small graduate seminars and loved the local focus of her courses, “I looked forward to every class.” To fulfill her program’s breadth requirements, Morley was encouraged to take classes of interest outside of her department, including in Education Policy, Peace Studies, and Social Studies Education. When it came time to design her capstone project, she worked with Erickson to devise a thesis that captured both her academic interest in local history and her aim to develop practicable curriculum at Convent of the Sacred Heart. “Two women founded Sacred Heart during a time when no other women were founding schools. It’s very unusual, so I was immediately drawn in. I was sitting in the school’s library one day trying to formulate a topic for my master’s thesis and then it hit me, ‘this school has so much history.’ ”
Morley researched Sacred Heart from its founding and developed her research into a semester-length social studies unit, which will soon be implemented as part of the Upper School curriculum. “One really good way to learn history is to take a small example and use it as a microcosm out from which you can talk about everything else. It draws students in because they’re like ‘Oh we go here. Of course we want to flip through these old yearbooks.’ And by looking at the history of the school the girls can learn about the history of the whole city. Why was this mansion built here and not further uptown? What was going on everywhere else at the time? What were women doing?’”
Morley takes up a similar teaching philosophy in her 3rd grade classrooms. This year she will be restructuring her social studies curriculum to focus on the Harlem Renaissance. “Growing up I lived in the West 80's and never came up 20 blocks. Which is disgraceful because I think there's more history up here than anywhere else in all of Manhattan.” She plans to take her class on multiple field trips to historical sites in Harlem, including a visit to see live jazz at the Apollo Theater. “I think the kids will be able to connect so much more to something that took place a few blocks away from them.”
Morley’s scholarly background comes through even in her lesson plans for non-historical subjects. For instance, she has developed a unique approach to teaching media literacy. Each Friday, she asks her students to read children’s magazine articles, and then to act as “newscasters” presenting their own spin on a story of the day. “It's teaching them how to look at current events and realize that not everything you read is true.” Similarly, in her language arts curriculum, she assigns readings that will expose students to a wide range of diverse perspectives. “We’re reading a book right now by Grace Lin. It's called The Year of the Dog. It's about the Chinese New Year. I always try to incorporate different perspectives, cultures, and narratives as much as I can.”
At the end of a school day, Morley feels fulfilled when she’s seen her students making connections and thinking critically about the world around them. For her, the present is intrinsically colored by the complexities of the past, and she hopes to pass this historical understanding on to every child that she works with. “History is for people of all ages. Everyone can understand it in different ways. And to teach it to children, and to see them make connections—it’s the most beautiful thing.”