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Spotlighting Dr. Stephenson’s Fellowship

“Guys, we might need to contact some museums!” Working her way through endless historical documents, high school history teacher Dr. Corrie Stephenson finally finds a priceless treasure: photographs from WWI captured through the lens of science teacher Mrs. Catherine Brand’s great grandfather. Living in America at the time, he joined a volunteer American regiment of Polish soldiers who fought in WWI and then fought for Polish independence. Once Poland was independent of Russia, Mrs. Brand’s great grandfather, who had already begun the citizenship process, decided to immigrate to the US. By carrying a camera on his back throughout WWI, Mrs. Brand’s grandfather, an average person part of a bigger picture, captured unique pieces of history. “I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that maybe every family has a historically relevant story,” Dr. Stephenson explained. After understanding the overall picture, “average people kind of give us the best lens for looking at historical events.”

Last school year, Dr. Stephenson received the Lincoln fellowship through the Tikva Foundation, a seminar for American history teachers at Jewish day schools. This entailed weekly classes where they discussed readings and “listened to lectures from some really high-level historians.” By hosting these conversations and lectures, the fellowship aimed at working Jewish history into American history classes through the lens of Jewish contributions. This outlook of American history proved to be “fascinating” for Dr. Stephenson, whose PhD is in colonial and revolutionary America, because “I didn’t know beyond [my] field where the Jewish contributions are.”

After being out of school for a while, Dr. Stephenson appreciated this opportunity to “be back in that academic space again.” She expressed, “studying and having really high-level conversations… stretched some muscles that I had not stretched in a while.” Additionally, Dr. Stephenson enjoyed collaborating with other teachers. She added that meeting teachers with her shared passion from as far as Canada and as nearby as Tennesse highlighted “differences in curriculums between states and even between countries.”

Specifically, this fellowship allowed Dr. Stephenson to enhance her AP US history class. She explained that the course aligned with the “planning stages” of creating a new AP US History class at AJA, so she added the perspective of Jewish contributions to her curriculum.

Working her way through endless historical documents, high school history teacher Dr. Corrie Stephenson finally finds a priceless treasure.

Towards the end of the fellowship, participants were offered the opportunity to apply for a research grant which would allow history teachers to “teach history through the lived experiences of average people.” Knowing that this would open up a door to “do some research in a field that I have been curious about,” Dr. Stephenson readily applied. Already, she had experience tracking back the history of a Georgia family she worked with during her doctoral program, so Dr. Stephenson hoped that the grant would provide her the opportunity to expand her research in this area.

After pitching her research model to the grant committee, Dr. Stephenson won the funding to track a Jewish family and an immigrant family through history. For the immigrant family, Dr. Stephenson researched Mrs. Brand’s ancestors, who immigrated to the US in the early 1900s. Researching about Mrs. Brand’s great grandfather, who fought in WWI, showed Dr. Stephenson “this immigrant view of being able to belong to two countries at the same time and love both countries and fight for both countries.” Dr. Stephenson found this “idea that you don’t have to be either-or” to be parallel to that of AJA students’ relationships with America and Israel.

When trying to find a Jewish family to research, Dr. Stephenson discovered that Head of School Rabbi Ari Leubitz, who was co-teaching a class with her at the time, had family in WWI. With Rabbi Leubitz’s approval, Dr. Stephenson began diving into his family history. Through the grant’s funds, “I was able to find out that his great grandfather had emigrated from Russia in the 1890s.” Arriving in America, Rabbi Leubitz’s great grandfather built “a very successful business” which he lost in the Great Depression. Additionally, he was a “remarkably well-documented passenger in Ellis Island,” so she could track each step of his journey through the island.

Since Dr. Stephenson attests that there is “no good established historical method” for such research, “I had to make it up as I went.” Starting with a base from to determine “who is related to who,” Dr. Stephenson began filtering family names through newspaper archives. Luckily, she discovered that one can “never underestimate a small town’s ability to publish lots of random stuff in the newspaper.” From there, Dr. Stephenson branched out into court records and traveled to various locations to learn more.

Today, Dr. Stephenson hopes to use these stories as primary sources for her US history class. However, in the long term, Dr. Stephenson plans to write a book of US history “from the perspectives of these three different families in very different places.”

 Throughout this experience, Dr. Stephenson reaffirmed her thesis that “every family’s got a cool story.” With the “patience to wade through [many] documents”, history can be told, “through the eyes of just regular, average people.” Overall, “It was definitely worthwhile, I enjoyed it a lot, and I got to learn a lot.”

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