Tuesday, November 22, 2005
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.