Before the Texas humidity set in midmorning Wednesday, local educators, including University High School history teacher Dan Pfleging, inched from one edge of Waco’s oldest public cemetery to the other.

Every so often, a teacher would squat to take a closer look at a faded epitaph or birth dates in First Street Cemetery, near Interstate 35.

They would run a hand along the grooves of headstones from the late 1800s, snap a photo and tap on their smartphones, searching for answers to a scavenger hunt that revealed hints of untold history.

“I’m always learning new things, and it’s fun to see that. This kind of helps us, you know, the crusty old veterans, to be kind of shocked out of what we were doing into what we could be doing,” said Pfleging, who has been an educator for 20 years.

The hunt was part of a three-day professional development summit for area teachers who are part of the first Social Studies Teachers’ Academy for Waco’s new Heart of Texas Council for the Social Studies.

More than 30 teachers from 11 school districts are spending Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday listening to presentations by other social studies teachers and exploring historical sites in Waco.

The teachers were trying to find new ways of engaging students beyond standardized curriculum. When Pfleging was invited to be part of the academy, he jumped at the chance, he said.

The group started this summer as part of Baylor University’s School of Education. It is not Baylor’s first attempt at a professional development academy for social studies teachers, but the idea has faded over the years, said Chris Lemley, a Baylor doctoral student who developed the academy.

“For me, it’s the spontaneous conversations that happen when we remove folks from what we’re socialized to do,” Lemley said. “When we sit down at a desk and in a chair, we’re kind of taught to shut up and listen to the expert, but the fact is we believe each of these folks walking around right now are experts.”

The First Street Cemetery scavenger hunt is a perfect way to show off a local resource and demonstrate a way to connect students’ lived experiences into history lessons, Lemley said.

Baylor curriculum and instruction professor Tony Talbert typically hosts a cemetery walk-through for Baylor students about to go into teaching, he said.

This year, he couldn’t pass up the chance to help educators already in the field take another look at the world around them, Talbert said.

Visiting First Street Cemetery or other local cemeteries is a chance for teachers to engage students with something often seen as creepy and out of the norm that can lead to a new level of engagement on their lessons, he said.

Asking questions

“They get to see themselves. Some of the names on (these headstones) are longtime family names. But then there’s going to be groups in our schools who aren’t going to see their names,” Talbert said. “I want students, particularly students with Hispanic surnames or students of color, to ask questions and say, ‘Why don’t I see my name on here?’ or ‘If I do see my name here, wait a second,’ when we’re teaching about segregation. This cemetery was segregated for so many years.

“I want them to be curious about that. Women, for the young females to say, ‘Why is a woman referred to on this gravestone as the companion of, the consort of, the wife of, the beloved mother of, but on the man’s gravestone, it says captain so-and-so.’ ”

According to the historical marker at its entrance, First Street Cemetery is the resting place for several groups, including veterans, Masonic Lodge and the International Order of Odd Fellows members, Woodmen of the World, other fraternal organizations and a fenced in area for prominent Jewish families.

The majority of the headstones are engraved in English and often include some kind of symbol, religious or otherwise, Talbert said. But he always asks teachers and students to find a group of four headstones engraved with Asian script, he said.

“One of the things I always do is I ask where do we find answers?” Talbert said. “With technology, some were taking photos and shooting photos off to people they knew who spoke Japanese, Chinese or Korean. They were asking, ‘Hey, what does this say?’ and ruling out what language it wasn’t.”

Those practices give teachers a chance to show students how to digest facts, then question and investigate using resources that aren’t typical in a classroom setting, he said.

The four plots belong to a Chinese family that immigrated to work with a family of missionaries. The Chinese family eventually formed a thriving business in Waco when the area was going through its first growth spurt, Talbert said. They’re buried next to the family that brought them over, he said.

“So much of our schooling today is standardized, and sometimes in the fast pace of moving through curriculum, people don’t stop to engage,” Talbert said. “We can talk about doing something like this. And while it seems like it may take a great deal of time, the truth is, you’ve probably encompassed as much as you would’ve done in a series of lectures.”

Lemley said the council is planning other professional development gatherings in the fall and spring, but those are expected to be shorter than the three-day summit.

“This is amazing. I’ve already started to plan bringing some of my students out here next semester,” Pfleging said. “We’ve barely made it out of the front section and this (middle section of the cemetery), because we spent so much time looking at symbols and dates, talking about what we’re seeing. If we can get students to do that, it’s such a richer experience than just a lecture in class or even just looking at pictures.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as the Texas Community College Jour