Pioneer High School teacher fosters love for local history
Angela Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Ann Arbor Pioneer history teacher Jennifer Kunec doesn't just let her students coast after advanced placement exams.
Once the stated purpose of her AP U.S. history course is achieved - to prepare students for an opportunity to earn college credit without paying college prices - Kunec turns her students' attention to local history.
Kunec, a lifelong Ann Arbor resident and University of Michigan graduate, started the annual local history project a decade ago. Working individually or in groups up to four, students pick a historically valuable site in town. Tapping a variety of sources, from interviews to media accounts to deeds and other public records, students put together a poster board and a research binder on their chosen sites.
"I love local history," Kunec said. "I'd sometimes look at a building and want to learn what the story is. This lets me learn more about my hometown, and lets me teach students about hands-on research. I end up learning something new every year."
This year, students chose structures ranging from the iconic - Michigan Theater, Yost Ice Arena, and the Nichols Arboretum - to the obscure - privately owned homes that doubled as speakeasies in the Prohibition Era. Between Kunec's four classes, only two students or groups could tackle any one property.
In addition, the students grade two projects from other class sections. Constructive criticism is an important life skill, Kunec tells students fretting about giving their peers tough grades.
While the poster boards are the big showpiece, the binder is just as important because its depth and organization are indicators of the level of pride students put into their work. The course serves sophomores and juniors, and Kunec said the project doubles as a way to keep students engaged between the end of AP exams in early May and the end of school in mid-June.
While places like the Diag or Zingerman's Deli might have a lot more source material available than private homes, more material means more of a burden to tell the story well. Still, students who choose obscure buildings don't get a pass, Kunec said.
"It doesn't matter which site you choose, if you do enough digging, you'll find some cool stories in there," Kunec said. "What I want to see is that you reached out to the relevant people, that you did the research."
Junior Emma Hamstra did her project on Burns Park and the accompanying elementary school, which she attended as a child. Both the park and the school were named for George P. Burns, who organized the Ann Arbor Parks Commission in 1905.
In a past life, Hamstra said, Burns Park was a half-mile horse track and a trolley barn. As a fairground, it hosted University of Michigan football home games in the 1880s.
Hamstra also learned the origin of the mysterious dirt mound in the park: It is excess dirt from the defunct racetrack.
"That I didn't know," Kunec said.
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.