NORTH ANDOVER — A record player softly played Benny Goodman's swinging tunes, as North Andover High School students perused a room full of mid-20th century artifacts on a recent Friday.
One student had set the record to play, but his first attempt put the speed at 45 revolutions per minute, and the already-swinging vibe of the music was warped into a comically fast rendition.
Curated like a museum exhibit, the North Andover High School room contained locally sourced items from the Stevens Memorial Library, Town Hall, and family collections.
Brian Sheehy, history department coordinator at the high school, has been collecting items for what he calls the history learning lab, in order to offer experiential learning opportunities to his students.
Sheehy said the opportunity to use a record player, read a newspaper, and actually hold photos is more immersive and has more impact to students than just listening to his lecture.
"History becomes more personal and therefore much more memorable for the student," he said. "I also think students want to dig deeper and really know about an artifact, picture, etc when there is a story behind it."
Sheehy took his class through the lab to analyze photos, artifacts, and newspapers from the era.
As the music resonated through the room, students explored the items — a Navy officer's uniform, a typewriter stamped that it was built in West Germany, newspapers that spouted war propaganda, and even some Nazi memorabilia — occasionally looking up to ask Sheehy what something was, or specifically when it was from.
"When you go to a museum, you can look but you can't touch" the items, sophomore Anant Shah remarked, reaffirming Sheehy's statement that the hands-on learning has a very visceral impact.
A lot of the items are of Sheehy's family history, which he found in a family member's Lawrence home, including family photos, diaries, small appliances and newspapers from the 1940s to the 1960s.
Its current setup correlates with the current unit he's teaching his AP European history class: World War II.
Even something as seemingly trivial as a box of old soap bars collected by one of Sheehy's family members from various hotel stays offered insight into a different era.
"You'd think they're mundane, but it shows you the different advertising methods," he said.
Sheehy has been with North Andover schools for about a decade. The Merrimack College alum studied history, and got his master's degree in teaching history from Salem State. He once worked at the Lawrence History Center.
He said the lab can trick students into thinking more deeply about the subject matter.
"From a learning perspective, students also develop the historical thinking skills necessary to become better history students," he said. "The skills the students develop in working with the objects in the lab strengthen the historical thinking skills of contextualization, cause and effect, change over time, content and sourcing of primary sources, and a variety of other skills. And they do all of that without really knowing they are doing it."
He has been collecting items with the idea of curating an experiential learning opportunity for months, and just opened the lab to students in March.
"Hopefully we'll acquire items from different time periods, to incorporate for each unit," he said.
Sheehy has high hopes for the experiential learning lab, and imagines it could be expanded and utilized by other subjects, like art.
He noted that he is accepting donations to expand the lab, which is currently set up in a history department office, and is looking for items from 1860-1980.
As the students' time in the lab neared its end, a group of them focused their interest on a relic from their upcoming lesson unit, the Cold War era: a monochrome monitor IBM computer.
One student looked up command codes on his iPhone, while another asked, "wait, what model Windows is this?"
Residents can reach Sheehy at email@example.com