"This feels right. This makes sense. This is what we should be doing."
As a teacher, I'm motivated by memories of my own schooling. I think about my high school education. I often tell people, "It was the best time of my life!" However, when reflecting upon my years in high school, several questions come to mind. What types of meaningful experiences did I take away? What lessons do I still remember? And, most importantly, how have I used what I learned and how would I have changed my education in order to make my experience more meaningful? The answer is fairly simple and is echoed in the words of most community adults who have become acquainted with our Heritage Project. I hear it many times during the school year: "Why didn't they have something like the Heritage Project when I was in school? School would have been a lot more fun if I could have been involved in something like that!"
What is it about Heritage Project activities that makes learning more meaningful and fun for students? Perhaps it's because typical school assignments and projects rarely allow students the opportunity to be taken seriously by adults in their communities, whereas, the Heritage Project allows kids to become the authorities. The Project provides students an authentic audience with which to share their knowledge and experiences. Such a project is unique in that it not only enables students to develop strong academic skills, but it also creates a connection between the students, their families, and their community through activities which are directly relevant to the students' personal lives and experiences. As students begin to realize that their research and learning really are valuable and interesting to other people--adults in their community whom they respect and admire--they begin to understand that the Heritage Project activities in which they are engaging have meaning and significance beyond the realm of a school room. High school freshman, Gale Price writes: "For the first time in my ten years of school, I have really been provided with a link to my community, to my family, to my heritage. I've had four generations of my family live in the Bitterroot Valley, but I never really cared until I started hearing other people's stories, and then I started listening to my family's voices. I think this project affected other students the same way." She continues, describing her shock over the outpouring of community interest and support for the work she and her classmates were doing: "To me, it's amazing how students react to what they've learned, but it's just as amazing how the community reacts. The people we interview, the people who brought photos, people at the museum, the people who have helped us in any way with this project all gave us a piece of themselves."
Over the past three years, we've worked to help students find and develop that "link" to their community and, in the process, the Corvallis Community Heritage Project has developed a motto: "Producers Of Knowledge, From The Roots Up!" It isn't enough for students to simply learn about their community--to "consume" the knowledge which others have sought and provided for them. A connection between the students and their community is formed only through the "production" of new ideas about the community and its heritage and the sharing of that knowledge and understanding with others.
In our research of place we discovered that many communities once offered a pageant, a celebration and sharing of heritage featuring a dramatic portrayal of important local events. Historically, the pageant was important in shaping the community's understanding of itself, both in the past and in the present. However, these pageants seemed to nearly vanish in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As teachers, we recognized the potential of this type of community presentation as a meaningful goal of our Project and as an opportunity for the students to give something back to the Corvallis community. Hence, the concept of our community celebration, Heritage Night, was born.
A night of student-generated work that featured the Corvallis community, Heritage Night focused not only on what Corvallis was historically and culturally in the past, but also on what its heritage means to kids today. Nearly two hundred people squeezed into the historic Ricketts Theater for an evening of true community sharing and celebration. Kate Campbell, a Corvallis freshman, provided a students' point of view on the evening. She writes: "On February 2nd, the lights dimmed and my classmates, together, took a deep breath and watched our hard work pulled together for a presentation of Corvallis' history. It involved our entire team and the result was a success. Students used every inch of their abilities. Those who were technically gifted scanned and copied photos, ran cameras, and worked on lighting. Those people driven by their social skills interviewed adults from the out-lying community, and students with the desire for writing developed the scripts for the night's program. We all used collaboration of our various skills to produce a product that in the end we all were proud of."
Students displayed creative art projects inspired by their local research, like collages combining tombstone rubbings from the Corvallis Cemetery with fictional obituaries and historic documents. Also on display was the queen-sized Heritage Quilt, created with hand-drawn quilt blocks, which focused on the visual representation of the heritage of Corvallis combined with an understanding of the five themes of geography. Students also shared personal portfolios, decorated with original artwork, which documented their family histories as well as important events in the students' lives. Tables displaying archival documents and the nearly five hundred historic photographs collected by students over the past three years flanked the theater's stage. Large murals, created from historic photographs of people and places from the past, formed the backdrop for the students as they spoke about their research and their personal understanding of the importance of the Heritage Project.
The focal point of the evening was the showing of a 35 minute film, which combined a student-generated script, audio excerpts and textual transcriptions of oral interviews of Corvallis "old-timers," local folklore, and over one hundred fifty visual images created from historic photographs. Conceived and written entirely by students, the film focused on the exploration of general themes--friendship, adversity, trust, home, and character--and the ways these abstract ideals have concretely shaped the Corvallis community.
That night, it wasn't just the kids who were doing the sharing. Through an activity called "Mapping Home," inspired by a similar community-based celebration of place held in Missoula, community members were encouraged to come forward and share a few of their own experiences, as part of Corvallis' heritage. The students created a large map of the Corvallis area and documented memories associated with the place they call home. After drawing or writing memories on index cards, students tacked their cards around the perimeter of the map and connected them with pieces of colorful yarn to a tack marking the place in which the memory was formed. During Heritage Night, community members came forward and mapped their memories of home. The mass of strings connecting them all began to grow and intertwine, and the connections between the students and the community "old-timers" became visually clear.
WHY HERITAGE NIGHT?
Why Heritage Night? When was the last time your community came together in celebration of itself? As in many small towns, our school is the focal point of our community. However, often times it is hard to create a good relationship between the school, the students, and the larger community. Ideally there should be a bridge between your students and community which travels directly through your school. In today's world, kids are often viewed as a detriment to the community rather than as a valuable and integral part of it. Through events like Heritage Night, we were able to show the public that kids are interested in being viable members of the community--kids who, instead of just taking, desire to give something back.
Heritage Night was a great relationship builder between the school and community. As teachers, we also viewed the project as a successful learning experience for the kids. The evening required students to draw upon a whole spectrum of different skills--from primary research, writing, and technical production skills to public relations, advertising, and social skills. The speeches, the script writing, the preparation for sharing knowledge, required students to both learn about their community and to reflect about what their community and its stories meant to them. The new challenge came in identifying ways in which they could share their personal understandings with the community.
There are a variety of methods students can use to return knowledge to their community and many ways through which we, as educators, can access students' understanding of the community's history. We can always take the easier path of individualized project work. After all, there is a purpose for the average report or term paper. It's innocuous and safe. It's familiar. However, Heritage Night and the groundwork which went into the production of the evening--which seemed both time-consuming and a bit risky at times--provided a more authentic form of assessment of student knowledge, ability, and understanding. We required our students to work both collectively and independently in gathering information. Once the information and data had been collected, we asked the students to use the information in a manner that would help them become the "producers of knowledge" instead of the typical "consumers of knowledge." Finally, we required students to demonstrate a variety of skills associated with the conveyance of information. These skills include computer competence, writing and composition, archival research, primary research associated with oral interviewing, and various aspects of performance and theater. These skills, coupled with everyone's desire to be recognized as an important part of a community's heritage, literally opened the door for a successful Heritage Night.
THE CREATION OF HERITAGE NIGHT
Our concept of the evening began with two desires: 1). To provide a venue for students to share information, documents, and pictures they had gathered through their primary research. And 2). An opportunity to display some of their creative projects and products. However, we wanted a presentation which was more exciting and interactive than just a simple open house at the school. The "Living Voices" performance during last summer's institute was perhaps the most significant event which inspired our vision of Heritage Night. The idea of bridging the gap between the past and the present through some type of visual presentation intrigued us.
By the end of the summer we had a date and time, but the next question was: How and what do we do next? It seemed like a daunting task to get 25 students all headed in the direction of a common goal--our necks seemed to be sticking out quite a long ways! However, innovation requires risk and an educational adventure of this style seemed worth the hard work and chance involved.
At this juncture we focused on our greatest resource, the students. Initially, we thought the best format would be to have students write a script depicting the local stories and then have others act out the scenes in a play format. We felt that live performance was one of the most powerful and immediate ways to convey both the stories and messages the kids would share. However, we forgot one thing: high school students are a fairly active bunch and finding time to write, rehearse, and learn lines, wouldn't work too well with sports practice, church, family, and study. So, our concept of Heritage Night continued to change and evolve.
In the initial planning of Heritage Night we identified many needed resources and skills we felt we didn't possess. Primarily, we lacked the video expertise to shoot quality video footage and edit it into a final product. Professionals at our local access TV station helped us determine where to begin. The concepts were fairly simple: we could shoot the footage and then write the script to fit or we could write the script and then shoot the video to fit. We were excited about the idea of an actual video, but we were overlooking one of our greatest strengths as a Project: our extensive collection of photos of people, events, and places of the Corvallis area. Evaluating our district's available technology, the strengths and abilities of high school freshmen, and our time limitations, we began to focus on this collection of still images as the basis for our presentation. We already had most of the photos computer ready and we had a collection of approximately fifteen oral histories, so we began to explore ways of combining the visual images with the voices of our students and people in our community to create our own documentary. We simply reminded ourselves that Ken Burns used very little "live footage" of the Civil War when he did his documentary series!
By the end of the first week of November, we decided to describe the idea of Heritage Night to the students and provide them with a questionnaire to complete. The questionnaire outlined the different roles students could take in the production. These roles included: script writer, narrator, and technical support, which included research, photography, oral interviewers, computer applications, publicity, and hospitality. The questionnaire had a description of each role and detailed students' responsibilities associated with each role. Students were allowed to select the role they felt best fit their talents and interests.
The role of script writer was undoubtedly the most difficult and probably the most central. We had five volunteers for this role and all were fairly confident writers. We gave the script writers very little instruction other than to take several audio tapes of interviews home and listen for stories or events which intrigued them. Script writer and Corvallis freshman, Annemarie Webber describes how difficult it was for the students to get started: "In the beginning, trying to figure out how to describe Corvallis' heritage was quite difficult for all of us, because heritage is such a broad topic. But after watching videos of oral interviews and putting our heads together, we began to get a better grasp of what heritage really means."
It was clear by Christmas vacation that we needed to move along at a quicker pace. We invited the script writers out to dinner at a local restaurant and brain-stormed over basic themes. All the students had something which had caught their attention: the school fire of 1930, the longevity of friendship, war, the safety of our town, and the strange characters of our community. We then looked for basic threads which tied these events and people together. We decided that the themes of adversity, friendship, home, trust, and character would be the common denominator and we would build upon stories featuring these themes.
The beginning proved difficult for the students because we, as teachers, tried not to assign a topic but rather to guide students in the pursuit of their own interests. It made a world of difference in the students' commitment to their roles as script writers and their level of personal investment in their work. The script was truly an organic project. It seemed to grow and change almost daily as the kids defined and refined their focus. It was--in the truest sense--completely student-generated. The kids were proud of their work. Gale Price, the script writers who focused on the theme of character wrote: "I was especially interested in two old hillbillies who died in the late 60s and early 70s. Their story seemed to capture the innocence of Corvallis. And finding out about Milt and Dan Hightower became a personal project of my own. I conducted my own interviews, read newspaper articles, went to the museum archives on my own time, found photos, and put it all together in two pages. Those two pages mean a lot more to me than any two pages."
Although the five volunteer script writers were busy writing, other students helped in the process of creating the script. These students helped provide the needed information for the script writers. If a story was needed, such as a newspaper article about the school fire of 1930, another student would be responsible for traveling to the Ravalli County Museum archives to collect and deliver the article to the script writers. If there was a story that was touched upon in an audio tape that needed clarification, it was the job of the oral interviewers to make an appointment with the interview subject and expand upon the needed information. If there were photos of a person or event which needed to be copied, then it was the duty of the photographers to make copies and deliver them to the script writers. Involving every student and preventing someone from slipping through the cracks became much easier when there were a variety of activities from which the students could choose.
CREATING THE FILM,
We decided that for a fool-proof production we would place the stories on audio tape instead of reciting them live at Heritage Night. We agreed that by doing this, we could continue even in the event that a narrator became ill at the last minute. It was further agreed that the best narrators would be the authors of the stories, since they probably had the closest ties with the subject matter. We sent a tape recorder home with the script writers and told them to record their stories while leaving a pause where they wished to insert excerpts of actual oral interviews or parts of stories narrated by others. Back at school, we simply dubbed their narrated stories along with the audio excerpts of oral interviews onto a single tape.
Although the stories were taking shape nicely, the format of the presentation was still in question. We were familiar with Microsoft Powerpoint, a multimedia program which, at its essence, creates a slide show using digitized images. However, we were unsure how to combine the photographic images, the audio of the stories, and clips of oral interviews. We realized that before undertaking this type of technological project, we had to forge partnerships with other experts. We spoke with three different people about the hundred fifty images we thought we would use as slides. However, the images themselves were not our primary concern. The problem was digitizing 35 minutes of audio and melding it with the images. Digitized audio is fickle, at best, and it requires immense computer memory. So, still unsure about how to proceed, we turned to our district computer coordinator. He suggested something as simple as using a computer with a video card to dump the Powerpoint presentation of the images into a VCR while dumping the audio into the VCR at the same time. All it takes is a computer with video jacks, a good audio tape player (like those provided by the Montana Heritage Project), a blank video tape, and a standard RCA cable. The result was a polished 35 minute film which not only depicted the Corvallis of the past through historic images, but also the Corvallis of the present as understood and portrayed by the students through their own words.
BEHIND THE SCENES OF HERITAGE NIGHT
No production is complete without props and advertising of some style. We entered into a partnership with the art department for enlarged scenes of townspeople and buildings from our photo archive. These images wee painted on large sheets of masonite and mounted to specially-designed stands. We also had the shop class construct easels on which we displayed student work from the semester. The Heritage class worked on computer-generated flyers, which were sent to local media outlets, and also sent over 70 handwritten, personalized invitations on old-time post cards which were printed with scenes featuring Corvallis.
We carefully selected the Ricketts Theater outside Hamilton to be the location for Heritage Night for a variety of reasons. Although the theater is outside our immediate community, the venue added a sense of credibility and intimacy to the evening. The Ricketts Theatre has comfortable seating and great sight lines for approximately two hundred people and has an excellent sound system. This was especially important since many people in attendance were older community members who might have had trouble hearing the students' voices in the school gymnasium.
THE SUCCESS OF HERITAGE NIGHT
People came together on a February evening in celebration of students' hard work and efforts to show their understanding of the importance of their place. Unlike other typical community gatherings, there wasn't a fight over where to widen US Highway 93, lengthen the airport runway, or reintroduce grizzly bears to the wilderness. Parents didn't scream for some kid to drop a ball or miss a free throw. There was but a single confrontation: We challenged a group of people to realize how important their community was and continues to be. Young people showed their understanding of the significance of "place" and embraced a collective past while also identifying the importance of their role in Corvallis' present and future. It was the type of night that community members and parents look back on and say, "Why didn't they have a project like that when I was in school?" and a night when students understand how lucky they are to be a part of something larger than themselves. Freshman, Annemarie Webber writes: "The Heritage Project has been extremely important to all of us. For many kids, it seems that the town that they grew up in is the town that they're dying to get out of as soon as they can. However, I think that those who have participated in the Heritage Project have become more appreciative of Corvallis. They've realized how wonderful it has been to grow up in our town. I'm definitely one of those kids."
FROM STUDENT WRITINGS:
"Friendship" by Annemarie Webber
"Adversiy in Corvallis" by Kate Campbell
"Corvallis is Home" by Matt Martindell
"Trust in the Corvallis Community" by Casey Clark
"Character" by Gale Price