Chatfield High School history instructor Tom Hilgren addresses an audience during the New Deal Symposium, held on Saturday, Nov. 2, at Potter Auditorium.
Chatfield High School history instructor Tom Hilgren addresses an audience during the New Deal Symposium, held on Saturday, Nov. 2, at Potter Auditorium.
Listening: A foreign, old idea.

The New Deal: Action education.

"The idea of having everybody sit still and listen to a 15- to 40-minute lecture is a foreign concept," said Chatfield High School history instructor, sharing how he deals with teaching his students about the New Deal and its everlasting effects on history. He explained this as he addressed an audience at the New Deal-built historic Potter Auditorium on Saturday, Nov. 2, as just one of many speakers presenting information about the New Deal. The speakers exemplified how the decision by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress to proceed with the collection of national infrastructure reinvestment initiatives had such magnanimous impact.

Hilgren was invited to participate in the Chatfield Center for the Arts New Deal Symposium because, as a history teacher whose students often inquire about the New Deal - and how it changed America - once they are introduced to the events and efforts of the era, he witnesses how those students become engaged in a diverse array of educational ventures as a result.

He related, as a student himself, he was not very aware of the New Deal, but that once he arrived in Chatfield and was enlightened on the origin of Potter Auditorium, built in 1937 through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as part of the New Deal, his perspective on how students perceive learning about both broadened.

"When I was in school, the New Deal was taught as nothing more than reading a workbook and filling out a worksheet and we didn't spend much time on it," he said. "I first heard of the New Deal from my parents, who were born in the 1920s."

Hilgren said there are stories of getting only an apple or new shoes for Christmas and being very grateful. His parents told about the Great Depression, but they didn't remember much about the New Deal.

"Most of my history classes focused on apartheid in Africa, modern Russian history, and what I did learn about the New Deal had two ideas that emerged - we were told that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a god-like figure, and that the New Deal was what got us out of the Great Depression," Hilgren added.

He elaborated, "When I started teaching in 1982, we still taught some things that way, but the political climate has changed significantly, and we no longer use textbooks to teach. We use other sources and we simply evaluate but do not come to a conclusion."

Hilgren pointed out his students have researched the history of the New Deal, beginning with the Roaring 20s and why the decadence of the day might have caused and given way to the Great Depression. They explore the "boom and bust" years and the ensuing despair that spurred the government to reinvest in the nation's infrastructure with effects that still serve the nation today.

The students do projects on the New Deal in groups, through presentations, cemetery walks featuring students roleplaying historical characters such as George Potter and other key Chatfield residents. There are skits and interviews with Chatfield residents who lived through the Great Depression and the construction of Potter Auditorium, also known as "Potter's Folly." Minute-long videos are created by the students to share on the local cable channel or with other students during the school day.

"They interviewed Dorothy Chase, who was in the first class to graduate here at Potter, they talked with Charlie Pavlish, who told stories about building Potter and how he actually helped and had to heat the bricks because it was so cold that winter," Hilgren told his audience. "They've done History Day projects - like science fair projects - on the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) camp that was right about where the high school is now and every few years there are more students who ask about how Potter Auditorium was built. They realize, after a tour with Robert Vogel, who is very good about sharing its history, that this wasn't just the place where they went to school - it is also a place of historic value."

Hilgren concluded, "Today, I teach the New Deal and the value of this building and Potter Auditorium. I think of students evaluating the New Deal, and I feel that they need to know the community has and continues to embrace this auditorium...the best experiences for my students have come with help from outside sources in the community."