Professor, Social Studies Education
"I have always been interested in the history of student protest and young people's involvement in social change."
Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: I am in a very great need of $100 ... This is one voice among hundreds of young people who wrote poignant, frank, impassioned, and sometimes heartrending letters to Eleanor Roosevelt during the worst economic crisis in America's history. Robert Cohen has collected and edited these letters in his book, Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression.
"I have always been interested in the history of student protest and young people's involvement in social change," says Cohen. "Books like Dear Mrs. Roosevelt can help teachers engage students in learning about how their peers during the Depression lived and thought, rather than simply approaching the subject by presenting facts and dates."
Cohen, who holds a Ph.D.in History from the University of California, Berkeley, has taught in the Department of Teaching and Learning’s Social Studies Education program since 1998. He has also written widely on race, class, and gender conflicts in American history. His book, The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960's, is an extensive exploration of the student-led Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964.
"People often catch on to the excitement of history when they work with original source materials," Cohen says.
He put this theory to the test after 9/11 when he involved his students, who are preparing to become middle and high school history and social studies teachers, in documenting messages that mourners wrote on walls and posters in Washington Square Park after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. "By having a role in preserving the emotions and ideas expressed by ordinary citizens during that difficult and confusing time, my students gained a first-hand sense of how archivists work," Cohen says.
He has also shown his students how teachers can use historic sites around New York City as vehicles for instruction. "It is my hope that the next generations of teachers will be able to convey the sense that history is not just about the past, it is about learning how to make sense of critical human experiences, which is a life skill no less essential than reading or math."
written by Cecilia Malm