Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Teachers' Guides for JAHA Sites

Inspiring Students to Explore their Heritage


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Welcome Educators!

Introduction | Sites and Themes

The unique draw of local history

Local history may be the most under-rated subject in the curriculum for getting students enthused! Most people probably admit that local and state history are important for students to learn. The recent Pennsylvania History Standards mandate much more of it than in the past. But most haven't realized the potential of local history to excite students, make them want to learn more, become self-motivated, polish investigative skills, analyze evidence, and draw thoughtful conclusions.

Think about it: Local history is like legalized gossip about your neighbors! It has built-in relevance that can be used as a local lens through which to view national events. The primary sources for studying local history are right at hand, not secured at the Smithsonian or National Archives. The eyewitnesses of local history are our neighbors and family members. Studying local history cultivates respect for the efforts of those who have gone before, as it sharpens our assessment of the choices they made that created the communities we live in. Hopefully, it produces citizens who are able to make better choices about the place they inherit.

Facing the challenges

The biggest challenge facing teachers who wanted to teach local history has always been the (understandable) lack of textbooks and other instructional resources at a local level. The economy-of-scale required for successful publishing will never favor the traditional textbook approach for local history study. The lack of textbooks is a blessing in disguise! Without secondary sources like textbooks, students must work with primary sources and learn to think critically for themselves.

That is where the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA) and this site come in. Through the generosity of a private donor, JAHA has spent several years digitizing its collection of primary sources and creating this web-based teachers guide. The goal is to help educators in western Pennsylvania use JAHA's three historic sites -- the Johnstown Flood Museum, the Frank and Sylvia Pasquerilla Heritage Discovery Center, and the Wagner-Ritter House -- effectively to teach local history now and to light a spark of curiosity in their students that will continue to burn for years to come.

Using this Teachers' Guide

For each of JAHA's three historic sites there are three flexible thematic threads. Threads focus on different disciplines and topic areas to help you tailor class visits to meet your instructional goals. Each thread includes discussion topics, primary sources, and learning activities for students before your visit, during your visit, and further exploration after your visit. With extensive galleries of artifacts, photos, and documents from the JAHA collections, even classes outside of western Pennsylvania should be able to complete most of the learning activities located on this website.

The Pennsylvania History Standards suggest that students study Pennsylvania and local history at three levels -- upper elementary, middle school, and high school. Therefore, these materials aim for the middle, since most teachers are quite adept at adapting instruction up or down to meet the ability levels of their students.   JAHA has also referenced standards from all subjects that touch upon the topics discussed here.  The referenced standards are available for each thread.

Please let us know your suggestions and experiences working with these materials. We look forward to seeing you and your class!


The Sites and the Themes

Johnstown Flood Museum

Recipe for Disaster

Emphasis: Geography, Earth and Physical Science, Environment, Civics, Economics, Social Studies

Hard as it is to believe today, no successful lawsuits were brought against the owners of the dam that unleashed destruction on the Conemaugh Valley. After the dam had held for decades with only minor problems, why did it fail so colossally on May 31, 1889? Why was the Conemaugh Valley vulnerable to flooding? What other factors contributed to the destructiveness of the Johnstown Flood? In this thread, students will investigate these big questions by digging into the evidence to seek answers for a multitude of other questions that overlap geology, meteorology, engineering, communication and transportation technologies, as well as history, geography, and economics disciplines within the social studies.

Telling the Story

Emphasis: Language Arts, Visual Arts, Music, Performing Arts, Character Education

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 was the biggest news story of the last quarter of the 1800s. Reporters, photographers, and artists flocked to what used to be Johnstown to meet the challenge of describing the indescribable for newspapers, magazines, and books around the world. Just as today, not all publications were equally reliable. Students will read and compare a variety of accounts, from straightforward survivor stories and official reports to sensationalist tabloids.

By reading and interpreting these stories and telling their own, students will learn to read more critically, considering how audience and purpose effect the telling of a story and how different media are suited to telling different aspects of a story. They will explore such concepts as fact and fiction and such ethical issues as exploitation, fact-checking, and sensationalism.

Rebuild or Move on?

Emphasis: Social Studies, Civics, Economics, Character Education, Visual Arts (architecture)

After witnessing the destruction at Johnstown and surrounding communities, it is a wonder that everyone didn't abandon the ravaged Conemaugh Valley. The enormity of personal and financial loss makes rebuilding even more unimaginable.

The decision to rebuild or move on was a personal, as well as a community, decision. Many individuals, having lost every family and physical tie to Johnstown, did move on. The majority of flood survivors did stay in the Valley. Incredibly, by 1910, Johnstown's population had more than doubled since 1889. It is an inspirational story any time, but it is especially so at a time when western Pennsylvania is trying to rebuild after its economic base was destroyed, and as New Orleans rebuilds in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.


Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center: Through Immigrant Eyes

The Push and Pull of Immigration

Emphasis: Social Studies, Economics, History, Geography, Character Education, Multicultural and Ethnic Studies, Mathematics (statistics and graphs)

Historians use the words "push" and "pull" when they study migration. Something "pushes" migrants away from their original homes; something causes them to leave. The other side of the immigration equation is "pull": immigrants decide where to move. Something "pulls" them to their new home.This thread explores the push-pull engine that drives immigration and the American Dream that fuels it.

Making a Life: Creating a Community

Emphasis: Social Studies, Language Arts, Arts, Folk life, Multicultural and Ethnic Studies, Character Education, Journalism

New immigrants making the adjustment to their new American communities sought refuge in communities of their own -- churches, synagogues, and social clubs where they could speak their own language and practice their own traditions. As generations passed, the ethnic communities became absorbed into the larger community, but sharp-eyed historian-detectives can learn how to decipher clues of their past importance on the streets of Johnstown.

Making a Living

Emphasis: Social Studies, Economics, Character Education, Multicultural and Ethnic Studies, Career Education

Putting food on the table is at the root of most immigrants' reasons for leaving home and settling in a new place. Little of their old life prepared former peasants for the work they would do in America! Noisy, filthy mills and mines ran around the clock, never stopping for nightfall or holidays. Eventually, they learned to organize to negotiate with the Boss, as the labor movement gained steam.


Wagner-Ritter House

Neighborhoods Worlds Apart

Emphasis: Social Studies, Economics, History, Geography, Multicultural and Ethnic Studies, Mathematics (statistics and graphs), Visual Arts (architecture)

Students will compare social, economic, and architectural aspects of Cambria City and Westmont through census data, historic maps, and architecture. A walking tour of the Wagner-Ritter House's Cambria City neighborhood will build students' historical imagination skills and coach them to read the landscape like cultural geographers.

(Wonder)Women's Work: Real Vs. Ideal

Emphasis: Social Studies, Economics, History, Home Economics/Domestic Science, Mathematics (statistics and graphs), Visual Arts (architecture, interior design)

Pressures to be a "Super-Mom" are not new. A century ago, the media -- in the form of advice manuals and advertisements for an explosion of new products and services -- projected ideal views of housekeeping that view real women could live up to. Most working class families couldn't afford new conveniences like electric light, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners. They could barely afford rent and groceries. Learn how women held the family economy together -- a more than full-time job of back-breaking labor.

A Kid's Cambria

Emphasis: Social Studies, Economics, History, Multicultural and Ethnic Studies, Mathematics (statistics and graphs), Folk life

What was it like to be a kid growing up in 1900 at home, work, and play? Some kids didn't have the luxury of "growing up." It was still a time of great infant and childhood mortality, when many children never lived to see their sixth birthdays. Many of those who did make it soon confronted more danger when they went to work in the mines and mills to help families living on the edge of poverty. Schools prepared them for an economic world very different than ours, so most left school after eighth grade, but not until completing a surprisingly rigorous curriculum, which modern students can sample right from the textbooks. Still, kids will be kids, so kids growing up in Cambria City did not neglect having fun! Students will learn how kids occupied themselves before mass media and adult-devised video- and computer-games.

Funding Credits

Made possible through generous grants and in-kind support from AmeriCorps.

Teachers' Guide Production Credits

Overall Project

Project Director

Richard Burkert, Executive Director, Johnstown Area Heritage Association

Project Coordinators

Danielle Miller, Museum Educator

Emily Ruby, Historian

Historical Content Research

Dan Ingram, Curator, Johnstown Area Heritage Association;

Richard Burkert, Executive Director, Johnstown Area Heritage Association;

Emily Ruby, Historian

Curriculum Design and Development

Susan K. Donley, Learning Design

Web and Graphic Design

Susan K. Donley, Learning Design

Standards Matrix

Danielle Miller, Museum Educator


Curriculum Design, Development, Writing

Susan K. Donley, Learning Design

Johnstown Flood Museum: "Recipe for a Disaster," "Telling the Story," "Rebuild or Move on?"

Curriculum Design, Development, and Writing

Susan K. Donley, Learning Design

Graphic Design, Illustration, Infographics, Web Production

Susan K. Donley, Learning Design

Primary Source Location and Reproduction

Emily Ruby

Project Coordination, Editing, Beta-Testing, Educational Standards

Danielle Miller, Museum Educator

Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center: "Push and Pull," "Making a LIfe," "Making a Living"

Curriculum Design, Development, and Writing

Susan K. Donley, Learning Design

Graphic Design, Illustration, Infographics, Web Production

Susan K. Donley, Learning Design

Project Coordination, Editing, Beta-Testing, Educational Standards

Danielle Miller, Museum Educator

Primary Source Location and Reproduction, Census Database

Emily Ruby

Wagner Ritter House

Curriculum Development and Writing, Educational Standards

Danielle Miller, Museum Educator

Web Production, Project Coordination

Danielle Miller, Museum Educator

Reproduction Credits

Thanks to the following for permission to reprint previously copyrighed material in the production of this Teachers' Guide:

Gibbs-Smith Publishers for excerpts from Pennsylvania, Our Home textbook, ©2005

Susan K. Donley for rights to "Reading a Photograph" and "Oral History: Asking the Right Questions" exercises in the "Tools" section.

Excerpts from Victor Heiser and Nathan Shappee

Photographs by:

United States Postal Service, John Henry postage stamp

Joe Magarac painting



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