Magical History Tour: Area 5th Graders Learn Local History at the Library

On a bright spring day last week at the Central Library, 18 fifth graders from Trailwoods Elementary pressed their palms to the glass and peered out the fourth-floor windows. To the north, the Renaissance Revival brownstone towers of the 120-year-old New York Life Building loomed majestically.

It was the first installment of the Library's High Five History: Inside and Out tour series, and the little-known view of Kansas City's earliest skyscraper was only one of quite a few oooh-inducing sights.

Other wonders: the view overlooking 10th and Main from the Rooftop Terrace, the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault's 35-ton bank vault door, and the elegant Missouri Valley Room, where Special Collections Librarian Jeremy Drouin gave a talk on researching primary sources (a theme throughout the tour).

It was in Special Collections, too, that Library Director Crosby Kemper III treated the students to an impromptu visit with local author, professor, and former Kansas City Chiefs player Pellom McDaniels, who had brought his son to research a book project

"This is a great place to come if you want to get away from the rest of the world and be involved with old things," the smiling, broad-shouldered scholar said.

Pellom McDaniels (center), flanked by Crosby Kemper III (left) and Jeremy Drouin in the Missouri Valley Reading Room

This is news to most of the kids taking part in High Five History. The majority of these students not only have never been to the Central Library -- many have never been downtown, period. And they likely don't know much about KC history.

Made possible by two $30,000 education support grants from Target, High Five is more than just a sightseeing trip.

Designed specially for KCMSD fifth graders, this interactive program uses the Library as a window into the history of Kansas City.  

Leading a tour of Central and a jaunt outside around the Library District, tour guide Clare Hollander, children's librarian at Central, compares features of the cityscape with how they were a century ago.  

For example, just a few blocks south of Kansas City's first skyscraper is its tallest, One Kansas City Place, built in 1988 -- 98 years after the New York Life Building was erected.

Built on state and local educational standards, High Five is the first program of its kind that has integrated area history with teaching students how to use the Library.

"The history element is a big part of it, but it's also a vehicle for information literacy," Hollander says. "The Library is a portal to the rest of the world. There's so much to take advantage of in here, and I love being able to expand kids' horizons."

Clare Hollander (center), Jamie Mayo, and Helma Hawkins (far right) showed a group of Trailwoods Elementary fifth graders what high-fiving history was all about.

In addition to learning about the Sanborn Maps, the Hannibal Bridge (whose story includes Hollander's favorite picture in Special Collections), and, of course, the First National Bank building that houses Central, Hollander and her fellow librarians Jamie Mayo and Kim Patton also teach how to navigate our website, search the catalog, and use Brainfuse online homework help. A healthy lunch provides fuel.

And when the students walk out of the Library at the end of the three-hour program, they will be carrying a freshly minted Library card in a snappy Target-branded lanyard.

It all began nearly two years ago.

The concept was developed by Youth Services staffers Crystal Faris, Helma Hawkins, and Mayo (who also coordinated much of the scheduling).

Director of Development Claudia Baker wrote the grant proposal, and then Hollander and Special Collections Librarian Lucinda Adams came up with the content of the program.

And then there's the matter of logistics: "By including funds for transportation, Target made sure every fifth grade class in the district will have a chance to visit," Baker says.

Part of the program's goal is to connect the Kansas City Public Library and the school district by providing students with lessons in social studies and information literacy, two things that often get left out in a public-school arena that tends to focus on math skills and standardized testing.  

Using state standards and local curriculum, the team created a program that is age- and grade-level appropriate.

"Fifth graders are the perfect age for this program," Hollander says. "They're becoming independent thinkers, they're self-confident, and they're on top of the world."

Target awarded the first grant in the summer of 2009. The Library intended to work with KCMSD teachers and principals over the ensuing year to prepare for the program's launch. The tours were to begin in the spring of 2010, but the school district's "right-sizing" that year - which resulted in 26 school closures and the laying off of some 1,000 district employees - delayed the process. (See the Kansas City Star's Saving 17,000 Kids series for more background.)

Now that it's up and running, things couldn't be going smoother. Several students in the visiting class from Trailwoods reported it was the best field trip of the year. 

High Five aims to slap a Library card into the hand of every fifth grader in the Kansas City School District.

"It is such fun to see the kids engrossed in the topographic globe, mapping the grandfather clocks and Greek keys they spy throughout the Central Library, and touching the century old stone of buildings on their walk around the block," Baker says.

"The teachers seem genuinely pleased with the field trip and teacher guides to support their classroom curriculum," Baker continues. "We are so fortunate to work in partnership with Target to make this project possible."

The current funding runs through August, and the Library has submitted for another year of financial support.

As for the kids: "I heard three of them after the tour making plans to come back to the Library the next day," Hollander said.

-- Jason Harper