Students retell stories of John Brown's raid using technology

June 14, 2009|By CRYSTAL SCHELLE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. -- It can be hard to convince a group of middle school students that abolitionist John Brown still has relevance today.

Or better yet, have them try to convince other tweens and teens of the same thing.

But Harpers Ferry Middle School has partnered with Harpers Ferry Historical National Park, The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a nonprofit organization, and the Advisory Council on Historical Preservation, to do just that.

Students at Harpers Ferry Middle School are working with Jason Hoffman, a sixth-grade math teacher and technology specialist, to produce vodcasts about the park. The event coincides with the 150th anniversary of John Brown's raid.

The finished vodcasts will be unveiled Thursday, June 25, at Harpers Ferry Middle School.

"The entire school is involved - sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders," Hoffman said.

Principal Joe Spurgas said this hands-on learning is the type of education he believes in.

"It's bringing in all members of the community," he said.


In total, there are about 75 students volunteering their time to produce vodcasts - short videos posted for viewing on computer or another electronic device.

In this case, the video would be available for students and other park visitors to download to their iPods or MP3 players to watch while visiting the park. The entire vodcast from start to finish is produced by the students.

Rediscovering John Brown

Angela Stokes, director of education with The Journey Through Hallowed Ground, said the students are to produce six two- to five-minute vodcasts, each on a different perspective on the John Brown story.

"This is a student learning project to create and help solve a program for the national historical park, which is a downturn of youth at the parks," Stokes said.

Hoffman and Stokes said the project officially started in January.

Students wrote the scripts, created storyboards, faced a focus group, made costumes, filmed the stories and by the end of school were finishing the film-editing process.

Hoffman said there were "some heated discussions" among the students about what was going to be included in their vodcasts.

"They are 100-percent student created," Hoffman said, "with little direction, mostly in the use of the editing software."

Other students are helping in other aspects such as marketing.

What makes this such an unusual project is that the school is inclusive.

"We have students working on this who are in honors (classes) and others who are in special education classes," Hoffman said. "Everyone has the ability at their level to contribute."

Hoffman said Harpers Ferry is being used as a pilot program, with the hope that if the project is successful it can be used at other historic sites.

Hands-on experience

Lauren Simpson, 13, and Mollie Hoffman, 13, who just finished seventh grade, are in charge of editing one of the vodcasts. Their vodcast focuses on John Brown's children.

"John Brown's children had a hard decision between the raid and the family," Lauren said.

Using Final Cut Pro software, the girls are editing the vodcast. They digitally splice the film and insert words and music to their work-in-progress.

"John Brown's story is really important," Lauren said. "One of the reasons I moved here was that it had so much history."

The only downside to being part of the group, Mollie said, is that they miss a lot of other classes because the project team meets twice a week. However, she said their teachers worked with them to make up any work.

Mollie said she hopes it will inspire others.

"History shaped the way our country is. It's really important," she said.

Cali Mayne, 13, is a graduating seventh-grader. She is one of the students in charge of media for the project. They made fliers and wrote a letter to the Obamas inviting them to the unveiling of the vodcasts. She's hoping that if the president or first lady can stop by, maybe they will bring their daughters, Sasha and Malia.

Cali said she hopes other schools will take on similar projects.

"It would be nice to see other schools do the same thing we're doing here about their historical places," she said.

History first

Autumn Cook, education and media technician for the park, said she was brought on board to help with historical accuracy. She also collected information to help the students in their research before the project started.

She said she's amazed how the students have been able to juggle schoolwork and balance the work it takes to put together the vodcast.

"They just have such creative spirits," Cook said. "Hopefully, they'll inspire other students to be excited about history."

Catherine Bragaw, education program manager at Harpers Ferry Historical National Park, said she's enjoyed watching the students grow and really take ownership of the park.

She said students learn about the significant impact the events at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park had on their lives.

"And by having kids tell about the events to other kids their age, it makes it more meaningful," she said.

Lessons learned

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