National Railroad Hall of Fame

Knox Student Helps Design Exhibit for National Railroad Hall of Fame

Teaching, learning through personal histories of railroad workers

February 02, 2010

Whether it's basketball or teaching, Knox College student Erin Navolio leads with focus and flexibility. Through January, the 6-foot guard/forward and team co-captain is second in overall scoring and among the leaders in defensive rebounds, blocks and steals. The educational studies major also aims for focus and flexibility in the classroom as she prepares for a career in education.

Erin Navolio"The professors in my educational studies classes -- Stephen Schroth, Jason Helfer and Diana Beck -- all emphasize the importance of being true to the field that you're teaching -- whether it's English, or history or mathematics. It keeps your instruction focused on the essentials," Navolio said. "But you also have to be flexible, and vary your approach if you're working in kindergarten or in eighth grade. That's where we differentiate based on student readiness."

Trunks Through Time
Working with faculty members Schroth and Helfer and several other Knox students, in a project for the National Railroad Hall of Fame in Galesburg, Navolio has helped design a series of multi-disciplinary, grade-school-level lesson plans based in railroad history. Titled "Trunks Through Time," the lesson plans use the stories of railroad workers to enhance teaching in several areas, from history to mathematics -- even music -- for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Railroad Hall of Fame"Trunks Through Time" consist of, literally, four trunks that, according to the story line, have been turned in at the Lost-and-Found department in a large railroad station. Pretending to be staff workers in the Lost-and-Found, the students are presented with one or more of trunks and assigned to learn more about the owners, by examining the items that the trunks contain -- such as clothing, pictures, news clippings, and personal effects.

"The owners of the trunks represent railroad history from four points of view -- Chinese immigrant laborers who built railroads; African-American Pullman Porters who worked on passenger trains; 'Harvey Girls' who worked in restaurants that served railroad passengers; and Latino 'Boxcar Children,' kids whose families lived in surplus rail cars," King said.

Currently on exhibit at the Buchanan Center for the Arts in Monmouth, Illinois, the trunks will be publicized to schools and teachers for use in the fall, said Julie King, executive director of the National Railroad Hall of Fame.

Railroad Hall of Fame committee"The trunks can be used all the way from single lessons to extended units," Schroth said. "Some teachers will be able to go through each of the trunks, and others may make use of one trunk, depending on the amount of time they have, student readiness, and their particular curricular needs." Schroth and Helfer have worked with other leading organizations, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the American Boychoir, to create lesson plans that use narratives to engage student interest.

Project development: "a real collaboration"
"The idea to use trunks filled with personal objects and stories originated with Sheryl Hinman, a retired Galesburg High School teacher and terrific supporter of the National Railroad Hall of Fame," King said. "We received a grant of $7,500 from the Galesburg Community Foundation to create the four trunks. The overall design comes from BRC Imagination Arts -- the same company that designed the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library in Springfield." Some of the items in the trunks are replicas, while some are antiques that the National Railroad Hall of Fame researched and purchased on-line, King said. Schroth developed the "Lost-and-Found" story line, which includes a "memo" from the supervisor of the Lost-and-Found department to his staff -- the students in each class:

Trunks Though Time display"We need to clear these old trunks out of the storage room and I want them returned to their rightful owners," the memo states. "I want each of you to examine these trunks, working either alone or as part of a group, to see if you can determine to whom each trunk belonged..." Schroth's memo challenges classes to study and describe the contents of each trunk. "Sometimes passengers who have misplaced luggage can be traced through their employer, union, or professional organization," the memo states. "Are there any indicators contained in the luggage that suggest the occupation of its owner?"

"The underlying message is one of transformation," King said. "Railroads transformed the nation and the landscape. They created opportunities for wealth for individuals and groups. The trunks will help tell what this meant for people's lives. These were people from disenfranchised groups who worked incredibly hard, but didn't share in the material wealth to the same degree as many others in mainstream American society."

"This has been a real collaboration, and Knox has played an important part in that collaboration," King said. "Two Knox students worked on it last year -- Grant Forssberg and Margaret Spiegel did historical research. Kathryn Rose Frank and Erin have worked on it this year. And Analise Rahn and Allison Smith have built costumes for two of the trunks -- the Pullman Porter and the Harvey Girl."

Lessons designed for all levels
Erin NavolioNavolio helped organize the lesson plans so that the trunks could be used with whole classes or just small groups of students at each grade level. "I looked at the Illinois Learning Standards, which helped us to identify the ways for our projects to be useful," she said. The lesson plans could support projects in English and language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, music and visual arts.

If a trunk is used in kindergarten or first grade, "the lesson might focus on a railroad schedule and being able to recognize time to the hour and half hour," Navolio said. "With older students, they might look at the schedule and determine how long it would take to get from one destination to another. We try to address the same issue, time, and build activities that are appropriate to where the children are in school."

Stephen Schroth"Erin has shown true leadership," Schroth said. "She has the ability to bring together the curriculum with the needs of the children, assessing where they are and working with them, so that maximum learning can occur. She has tailored our ideas into specific academic activities."

Navolio has also shown leadership in athletics, said her basketball coach, Emily Cline. "Erin is a very talented player -- our only all-conference player last year," Cline said. "She was one of the leaders on the team even as a junior, when she wasn't a captain, because of her work ethic and her talent. It will be a natural transition for her, from being a great basketball player to being a great teacher in the classroom."

Professors, coaches help students meet goals
Emily Cline"If I could share one thought with all prospective students, I would tell them about the professors at Knox," Navolio said. "In my four years, I have never had difficulty approaching a professor for additional time and help on classroom work or special assignments. Coach Cline moved a practice time so I could attend one of the planning meetings. Professor Schroth has been an amazing mentor and advisor. He challenges me to think outside the box, work beyond what I think I am capable of and has been supportive in all aspects of my education."

Navolio said the "Trunks Through Time" project has given her "a hands-on experience where I can see how important differentiation can be in a classroom. The project has shown me how to take one particular topic and approach it in different ways, based on the group of students I am working with."

"Trunks Through Time" are on exhibit at the Buchanan Center for the Arts in Monmouth, where the opening featured a talk, "Journey Stories," by William Withuhn, curator of transportation for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, on January 30. The trunks will be on display at the Buchanan Center through March 14, when the National Railroad Hall of Fame will begin promoting them to local educators for classroom use starting in the fall, King said.

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 47 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.