A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

Simms students figure it out together

Dorothea Susag
Sarah Zook
Mary Jane Johnson
Belinda Klick
Chuck Merja

Simms High School


One day while students were collecting resources for their research papers, Simms English teacher Dorothea Susag heard a girl in the far corner of her classroom announce in frustration, “I don’t know how to do this!” Before Dottie could intervene, another student crossed the room. “That’s okay,” the second student said, “we can figure it out together.”

That moment defined Heritage Project work at Simms this year. Several classes—the computer applications class, Seniors Honors English students, and junior history/English scholars—worked together to explore the Sun River Valley as it existed in1910.

Students began their expedition to the early part of the century by interviewing family and community members and then transcribing those recordings for local and state archives. Next, students solicited original photographs of Vaughn, Sun River, Fort Shaw, and Simms from the years surrounding 1910. They located several significant new photographic collections and digitized and cataloged more than 300 images that are now available for other researchers.

Mid-year, Dottie immersed her students in the economics, politics, culture, and technology of 1910, drawing in part on material that Project Director Michael Umphrey had prepared for the 2002 Teacher Institute. In their heritage scavenger hunt, students read magazines, novels, and newspapers of the period, watched movies about it, listened to its music, and studied its fashions.

With that context, one set of students used maps, photographs, and oral histories to reconstruct the appearance of the main street in each of the four communities in the valley. Another group selected a single newly-found photograph from 1910 and teased questions from the image about the history, geography, and culture of the era and of the valley. Everyone worked to create a time line that placed the Sun River Valley’s 1910 experiences in the context of the nation and the world. Students added new dates to the time line as they worked at putting local stories into historical perspective.

Students drafted essays, poems, maps, and PowerPoint presentations, conducting additional research and interviews as needed. Dottie and fellow teachers Sarah Zook, Mary Jane Johnson, Belinda Klick, and Chuck Merja pushed their students to find concrete, specific information that would shed light on several big questions: What’s changed? What’s lost? What’s gained? What stories hide behind what we’ve believed and thought was true? What’s stayed the same in the Sun River Valley and our four towns? Why? Part of the fun was to refuse to settle for easy answers.

In the spirit of figuring it out together, each student essay or presentation was read by student peers, teachers, and mentors. The Senior Honors English class then polished the material one last time before its presentation in Simm’s sixth Stories in Place literary magazine and in their PowerPoint presentations. “Even though my I thought my paper was done, it had just begun. I learned how to revise, edit, and correct, “ Dani Fleming wrote in her evaluation of the Heritage Project.

At the beginning of the year, Whitney Hall worried that the amount of research required would jeopardize other school work and activities. As she pored over a Sunnyside Store photograph and kept searching for information about it, she found that “as the work progressed into more depth, it became more enjoyable.” She pushed herself to excel as she realized that “speaking to the community encouraged me to perform to the best of my ability. I did not want to let them down.”

Simms used their March Heritage Fair to thank community mentors and to introduce a new community advisory council formed to provide community support to the school. In exhibits, songs, poems, audiovisual presentations, and dances, they also showcased their answers to their big questions about the similarities and differences in the valley between 1910 and 2003.

To print a final report for the year-end binder, click here.
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© 2003 Montana Heritage Project
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