Friday, October 3, 2014

A Grave Concern


During the summer of 2013, I attended Confratute at the University of Connecticut.  It was the last 3 credits in my masters program, and I needed to take one strand which included a project for a grade to satisfy the credits.  One of my cohort members teaches National History Day (NHD), at the Renzulli Academy in Hartford, and Melissa was slated to present in one of the breakout sessions.  She asked me to join her and speak about attending nationals with one of my students the previous month.
It's easy to get adults excited about NHD because the benefits are so obvious.  It may not be the case for students in a classroom.  I accidentally stumbled on a hook during Confratute -- and it was all because of Samuel Johnson.  (Died March 22, 1843 at age 92)  I found Samuel in a small cemetery near UCONN on a 106 degree day.  I had a beach towel, a piece of paper, a carpenter's crayon, and some masking tape.  And, mercifully, a hat and a bottle of water.  As part of the Confratute experience in Project Based Learning, we were shown how to do headstone rubbings.   Behind Samuel's headstone was a Revolutionary War marker indicating he was part of the "Lexington Alarm".  And, heart-breakingly, next to Samuel was the stone of Sarah, his wife, who died at age 68 on October 11, 1820.  Next to Sarah, Ralph Johnson, their son.  And here's where the questions really started.  Ralph died October 6, 1826, at age 28.
Imagine, mother and son, dying 4 days apart. What had happened? 
On my last night at UCONN, I pulled the ever so popular ALL NIGHTER.  I didn't mean to do so.  I had 6 weeks to finish a project to satisfy the requirement for Confratute.  But I was nagged by the questions of this family. 
I've told this story to students and let them generate questions.  As I worked through the night, I took screenshots of the research that I did on the Johnson family.    I have rubbings of each of the three headstones which I shared with my students.  And as they asked questions, we tried to answer them together.
What was the Lexington Alarm?  Samuel was one of a small group who responded to the ride of Paul Revere at Lexington from CT.  He was, in Connecticut history, a war hero.  I found the family in the census records, and in local military records.  I opened my ancestry.com account and searched for other family.
By the time I saw my professor the next morning, I had a 60 slide power point showing the related primary and secondary sources that I'd discovered for this family.  And while I never did find out what had taken the lives of Ralph and Sarah, or family for Samuel, I have even more questions.  I discovered a lengthy lineage for Sarah -- which is unusual for a woman in 18th century America, and no lineage at all for Samuel.
It's easy to make history come alive through a series of "what if" or "what caused" questions.  I still have the files on ancestry, and still feel very connected to this random family I discovered in the blazing sun in Connecticut in July.  To be honest, it was the beauty of the willow trees on the headstones that attracted me.  It was the history that hooked me.


Primary Sources - Authentic Audiences:

Project Based Learning 

 The excitement I felt in that cemetery is similar to the rush of the students who compete in NHD every year.  This year, the theme is "Leadership and Legacy."  Students are asked to develop a project in the form of a research paper, an exhibit, a website, a performance or a documentary.  All but the paper categories allows for both individual and group projects in both junior and senior divisions.  If you've never been to an NHD event, check the website and find out where your local competition is held.  (And if you're a history buff, consider volunteering as a judge!)

One of the reasons that NHD is such a huge motivational tool for research is that there is an authentic audience.  The projects done for NHD are not just performed in classrooms or handed in to a teacher to judge.  There are real people wanting to hear real information about a real person or time in history. 

The idea of project based learning is not a new one.  Teachers are doing PBL better now, I believe, thanks to the structure of programs and competitions like NHD, which offer support and guidance, and the chance to immerse kids in authentic research for a reason.  The students working on Leadership and Legacy with me this year are focusing on these topics:

  • The Culper Spy Ring  (George Washington)
  • Henry VIII and the Legacy of the Anglican Church
  • Severin Fayerman and the American Dream (Holocaust survivor and CEO of Baldwin Brass)
  • Nicholas Winton (orphan smuggler during the Holocaust)
  • (TBA project on the Holocaust)
Already the folks at Amazon have shipped me new books.  The librarians are digging on googlebooks and interlibrary loan.  We're working to secure an interview with Mr. Fayerman and crafting questions.  Yes, it's NHD season, folks, and it spans traight through until March -- and beyond Regionals, if we're very fortunate.

These junior high and high school students will create annotated bibliographies of close to 100 sources.  Their goal is to have more primary than secondary sources.  My goal is to keep them passionate about their projects for the next 15 years -- or at least the next six months.

That's usually not too tough to do.  You see, my job is easy.  Authentic audiences and puzzles and questions motivate these kids.  (And their advisers!)