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PORTLAND — Through a unique partnership with Victoria Mansion, a group of Casco Bay High School students are learning to appreciate the threads that connect modern life to the past.
The students are creating an interactive curriculum that staff of the museum will share with middle schoolers across the city.
During their research, the CBHS students explored hot topics from the 19th century that still resonate today, from medicine to immigration to war.
Built by architect Henry Austin between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home for wealthy hotelier Ruggles Morse and his wife Olive, Victoria Mansion, at 109 Danforth St., is a National Historic Landmark.
Its most impressive elements are its “extraordinary architecture and interiors by Gustave Herter,” the museum website says.
And while the students were asked to use the mansion as the focal point, they were also told it would be all right to “broaden (their) horizons and (include) topics that are not directly connected to the house, but do pertain to the social history of the period during which it was built,” said Staci Hanscom, director of education at Victoria Mansion.
Hanscom and museum educator Brittany Cook said the mansion already has an outreach program that’s designed for elementary school students, but the museum wanted to expand by creating a curriculum specifically aimed at engaging the interest of middle school students.
And “(we) thought, who better to find innovative ways to reach this age group than high school students?” Hanscom said.
She said advanced placement history students from Casco Bay High were asked to create a 45- to 55-minute interactive lesson with “activities built in, so that they will keep the attention of the middle school students.”
In preparing the new curriculum, Hanscom said mansion staff and the high schoolers have discovered and researched connections to topics such as Victorian medicine, servant life, fashion, labor unions, and the Civil War, among others.
She said the goal is to build ongoing relationships with students at every grade level in order to build up an audience for Victoria Mansion programs, events and special exhibits as the students mature into adulthood.
Hanscom said the collaboration with Casco Bay High was a year in the making and, in addition to tours of Victoria Mansion, students also took a walking tour of Portland’s most historic buildings and neighborhoods to get a better feel for the city’s past.
The group visited the Neal Dow House on Congress Street, which was a focal point for several 19th-century social movements such as temperance, along with the U.S. Customs House on Fore Street in the Old Port and the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association building, known as Mechanics’ Hall, on Congress Street.
After the tours, Hanscom said the students began researching their chosen topics utilizing mansion resources, online sources, and the Portland Room at the Portland Public Library.
“Staff and docents at the mansion provided suggestions, images for talks, and fact-checking along the way,” she said. The students were then given the opportunity to test the new lesson plans on two classrooms at Lyman Moore Middle School.
Hanscom said helping students connect to Victoria Mansion is important because “historic houses often appear to be isolated from their communities, … (but) we don’t want to be that type of place.”
Through the partnership with Casco Bay High School, Hanscom said the mansion hopes to “help middle school kids learn about change over time, and help them put the 19th century into a usable perspective.”
“Building strong connections to the past helps form connections to the present and (can inform) choices and perspectives in the future,” Hanscom said.
As part of pulling together a new curriculum for Portland middle schoolers on the city’s 19th-century history, students at Casco Bay High School toured the U.S. Customs House in the Old Port.
Educators at Victoria Mansion on Danforth Street in downtown Portland want the historic building to be much more than just a museum.