The Montana Heritage Project takes standards to a new level

Today, as it was yesterday and probably will be tomorrow, the hot topic of conversation in the world of education is standards. Those of us involved in the Montana Heritage Project believe that standards are good and necessary. In fact, we have very high standards as illustrated by public displays of student mastery.

Students involved in the Heritage Project spend ten or more weeks per year studying some aspect of their community. They may focus on a historical event or period, a person, a current crisis, or the local economy. They do original research to find answers to their questions by completing oral histories with local residents, researching in archives, visiting sites of historic events, hosting community forums, and reading literature.

And they write.

Heritage Project students write a lot. They keep journals and logs; they transcribe and summarize oral history tapes; they write reports on the progress of their research; they write traditional ten-page research papers, newspaper articles, essays, poems, scripts, and plays. They write to create original gifts of scholarship which they give back to their communities.

I have the privilege of reading and publishing many of the essays that students write for their Heritage Projects. Their essays are thoughtful and thought-provoking, well-researched and well written. They present their papers in various public forums: at our statewide high school academic conference; at the Montana History Conference, sponsored by the Montana Historical Society; at the Montana Festival of the Book, sponsored by the Montana Center for the Book and the Montana Committee for the Humanities; and, of course, locally.

A few of the final products that have resulted from students’ research and writing include: several successful national register nominations, a $2.1 million performing arts center, many contributions to local archives, as well as hundreds of oral histories and publications.

The mastery displayed by students involved in the Heritage Project is sometimes astonishing. After a year of study, freshmen in Corvallis became the world’s foremost experts on the history of a forgotten gold-mining town. Students in Simms created a 3-D computer flyover of the Sun River Valley. Students in Ronan have published three books of veterans’ oral histories now available on Amazon.com. Harlowton students were granted access to a local Hutterite community. They made such a good impression on the reserved residents that they were given permission to publish a book on Hutterite life. None of these things could have been accomplished without a thorough knowledge of the topic, great writing skills, and the technological ability to communicate their findings.

Usually, Heritage Project teachers and students stage some type of public event to present their gathered research to the community. Sometimes, these events are academic extravaganzas and in some communities, they’re as well attended as basketball games. While students sometimes view these events with trepidation, community members view them with anticipation. Community members know that students have been researching them, their history, and their stories so they show up to these events to celebrate the students’ achievement—and to make sure the details are correct. Students know the stakes and feel the pressure. Because they give their research to the community, they have to make sure their theses are sound and their research is thorough. The community is watching them and they know it.

Students want to do a good job on their projects, so they do. You can see it in their essays, in their public events, and in their eyes. Their faces show the pleasure of accomplishing something worthwhile. And they should be pleased. Many of us think they’ve reached a high standard.

Back to Heritage Education

Posted by Katherine Mitchell on 11/22 at 04:19 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

The Real Work: Essays from the Youth Heritage Festival

We’ve finally got the Heritage Online Magazine built, so we’ve begun posting essays from the Youth Heritage Festival. We hope you send your students to read these, as models for their own work and as sources of inspiration for what is within their reach.

The essays are quite different in many ways, but one thing they share is that in each of them relationship emerges as an important theme. Each writer’s topic aims at a deeper understanding of people in the past, and each writer’s research method involves making or strengthening relationships with a source who can shed some light.

Though writing is done in solitude, it’s an inescapably social act for many reasons, including the simple fact that language itself is fundamentally social. As we grow, we become aware of others long before we become aware of ourselves. We come to consciousness within the language that those around us use. Dialogue precedes monologue.

For these young Montanans to write as powerfully as they do, they must have had good teachers, going back years. Some were classroom teachers, no doubt, but there were also those who held them on laps and read stories and those who spoke only through books. Every writer makes his or her voice out of communities or even multitudes.

Real writing—honest writing—is an important form of human relationship.

These essays are real writing. They aren’t cut and paste jobs or quick assignments cribbed from the internet. They’re works of creative scholarship by living minds. Because of that, they’re useful in many ways. They teach us things. They help us feel things worth feeling.

And they remind us why the ability to write well has always been taken as prima facie evidence of a quality education. Since writing well is a high order skill, it can’t be done unless a host of subskills are also done well. Not only do good writers have control of the complex apparatus of language, they also know facts and understand ideas and have some vivid and precise sense of the relationships between them.

And so we celebrate when our young people bring us these gifts of scholarship.

Just a note on the selection process: these essays were chosen by Heritage Project teachers, staff, and an outside evaluator as excellent examples of student writing. The evaluators were looking for essays that documented, and added to, a community’s or a person’s history. These essays that rated highest were well-researched by using primary and secondary sources and by interviewing local residents and participants. They’re good examples of local history and we’re pleased to offer them for your enjoyment. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/17 at 10:44 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

Kids flock to online publishing

Today’s teens are enthusiastic creators of Internet content, according to a survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Of Americans between 12 and 17 years old, 87 percent use the Internet, and of those who use the Internet, 57 percent have created online content.

That creation takes a variety of forms:

For the most part, these teens aren’t reading the big blogs such as Powerlines or the Daily Kaus. Instead, they’re reading in networks of blogs created by friends and family members. For teens, “blogs are about self-expression, building relationships, and carving out a presence online,” said Amanda Lenhart, co-author of the Pew report.

The broadband explosion which will likely follow the freeing up of broadcast spectrum to make room for digital television should accelerate and amplify current trends. As podcasting, which is already being followed by video podcasting, increases the power of individuals to create original content, it will become increasingly clear that the challenge for parents and teachers is not so much getting young people to use the new tools for personal creativity, but to guide them into using them for good purposes.

Kids are going to need wise guidance. If they receive it, we may be on the verge of a cultural renaissance.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/03 at 03:22 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project
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