Living history on view

Tuesday June 5, 2012

In some Berkshire County schools, history lessons are being consumed by locavore way.

As part of the third-grade social studies curriculum at Farmington River Elementary School, each third-grade student chose a historic figure from Massachusetts and wrote a biography of that person.

The project ended with each student reading his or her report and dressing in character for a wax museum demonstration.

"The third-graders did an outstanding job on their reports, their costumes, and standing still for a very long time," said teacher Debbie Dutton, who is retiring this year, after coordinating the project for several classes.

A total of 20 state natives were portrayed, including Clara Barton, Samuel Adams, Deborah Sampson, Rocky Marciano, Barbara Walters, Dr. Seuss and more.

Students said they thought the project was interesting, especially after finding similarities between themselves and their research subject.

"He liked exploring and I like exploring the big field near my house. Also, we both like to draw," said third-grade student Cole Margraf, who portrayed Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

His classmate, Amber Stearns, who portrayed American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, said some of the research and presentations will help students in fifth grade, when they study Colonial times in U.S. History. She also said the wax museum project helped her develop an interest in historic figures.

"My friend portrayed Helen Keller, who is so interesting. I want to learn more about her," Stearns said.

At Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School in Adams, the 52 students in Deborah Calderara's eighth-grade and high school history classes also worked on a new project this year. Together, they curated a history fair, "A Place in Time: Investigating the History of Our Community."

Students studied local history by researching architecture, including family homes, town buildings, factories and other facilities throughout the county.

The history fair was the culminating event of a year-long project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Classes included local historians as guest speakers, as well as site visits.

Both Calderara and BART arts program coordinator, Brian O'Grady, worked with the students to choose a site and gather, record, and analyze historical data for their projects.

"We encouraged the students to utilize everything at their disposal," said O'Grady.

For the fair, students created models of their sites, such as the Susan B. Anthony home and Fort Massachusetts, created accompanying PowerPoint demonstrations, photographs, maps and timelines.

O'Grady and Calderara encouraged the students to get creative in their research. Students visited local libraries, registries of deeds, hospitals and nearly vacant buildings. They interviewed community leaders and residents. One student even found a trove of 18th-century diaries in a family member's attic.

"I was really impressed," said Calderara. "They weren't afraid to pick up the phone or visit a site. One of the key lessons of this project is learning how to research. It's a critical skill to have in college and the work force."


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