The Madera Method: Rich and Fertile Ground for Doing History

Exciting things are happening in Madera, California. History is being made, literally. Young men and women are engaged in the glorious enterprise of doing history through a process known as the Madera Method, so named by renowned author Irving Stone. The Madera Method was launched in 1985 in a sixth-grade classroom by a teacher who made a serendipitous discovery that turned out to be an antidote for the indifference with which the teaching of history is treated in many classrooms throughout the nation. It involved project-based learning. It embraced the certainty that when students are emotionally bonded to history; when they are excited and empowered with a sense of ownership of their work, they open their minds to the drama of the past as active participants rather than passive recipients. This then is the educational goal of the Madera Method: to foster student excitement and project ownership by emotionally binding the students to a history they will be empowered to write.

It all begins with a mystery

It all begins with a mystery—a question, “I wonder….” That question might spring from an unusual epitaph on a tombstone. It might be in a cache of old letters. It could be on a roadside historical plaque. Whatever the source of the mystery, it will involve a local pioneer who then becomes the subject of an investigation in an attempt to solve a mystery. It becomes a school project—a Madera Method project.

Once the subject has been chosen, students are invited to join in a scavenger hunt for documents relating to their pioneer. The young historians are given ownership over a plethora of primary sources such as census reports, newspaper articles, land deeds, internet databases, old letters, military records, legislative records, genealogy resources (including, last wills and testaments, interviews of survivors and local elders, etc.

As the students analyze the documents and collaborate, they sense they have come face-to-face with the past on its own terms. Clio the Muse of History has whispered her secrets to them, giving them an abundance of information on the subject of their investigation. Now they are ready to look at their pioneer in context. What was his or her life like?  They want to assimilate the personal data and place it against the broader picture. It means discovering the pioneer’s Sitz im Leben, his political, social, and economic milieu. Once this is done, it is time for synthesis. It is time to write, to tell the tale. It is time for the students to write their pioneer’s story.

The writing in most Madera Method projects is done in the first person. The most popular format is a fictional journal. The students join in a division of labor wherein each young historian assumes the identity of their pioneer and records a portion of his life in a fabricated diary. Each student covers a year or two in the pioneer’s life, making entries that are based on the solid facts of their research. Their work is then published.

The finale in Madera Method projects takes place when a “Young Authors” reception is held. The student work is unveiled to the public, and the writers autograph copies of their book. It has been said that the creation of the Madera Method is cause for celebration. The projects have been labeled “models of excellence,” representing “substantial original research and superb writing by the students and well deserves the recognition they receive.”

Without question the teaching of history at all levels nationwide could benefit from a healthy dose of the “Madera Method.” Why is that?

Bill Coate cleaning a headstone

Four important reasons immediately come to mind

  • First, the students have the opportunity to actually do history. This in turn makes them more aware of the power of history in their own lives, resulting in a greater consciousness of themselves as historical beings. It is a life changing experience.
  • Second, history if far more than simply the memorization of names, dates, and facts. In the words of one scholar, “History is a lot like life—and we will better come to understand the one to the degree that we come to understand the other.” The serious student of history investigates not merely events, but human thoughts and action. This is the value of the “Madera Method.” It enables the student, once again, to have an exciting personal encounter with real people who faced the same vicissitudes of life we face. It bridges the generation gap and bonds the present to the past, thus insuring the future.
  • Third, the experience of working with primary sources and of having to place the personal narrative within the context of the larger national story is absolutely invaluable. The tough-minded methodology of this process allows each student to develop the important critical-thinking skills of analysis, application, synthesis, and evaluation. When finished the student can stand alongside Irving Stone and say with excitement, “I am a writer!”
  • Fourth, Madera Method projects are excellent examples of local history. In the words of Wallace Stegner, “This is the best kind of history, the history with more of ourselves in it than any other kind.” To Stegner, local history is a healthy correction for the enormous sense of historical loss he believes has accompanied the American experience in the 19th and 20th centuries.

As Stanley Pergellis, once the director of Chicago’s Newberry Library, said, “True patriotism springs from the soil and the streets where a man lives, from the rocks and rills he has known; if that local affection is wanting, the larger national affection in any sense that is real and lasting must be wanting too.

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