“This project started out as me and my friends pitching ideas around for the vodcast. When we got to choose our topic, we chose Constitutionality of Secession which we knew was going to be a challenge…. These vodcasts are more than filming in old clothes in your backyard. These are making something for students and people to watch and learn from. When making these vodcasts, I learned the importance of team work, and if we don’t work together, then we won’t get the job done.”
–Hensley Dwight, 7th grade, Locust Grove Middle School (LGMS), Locust Grove, VA
Hensley, her 7th grade classmates, and the 7th graders from Prospect Heights Middle School (PHMS) in Orange, VA, were all part of a yearlong service learning project created by Journey Through Hallowed Ground. The nationally recognized, award-winning program, entitled Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student (OBF), is targeted specifically at middle school students to tell local history through their own eyes for students their own age. Through a series of student created vodcasts (mini-movies), students pitch their ideas for a video to a panel of judges, and if their idea is selected, the students work together as a team to write, act, film, and edit their film for production, or as Hensley indicated, they filmed in “old clothes “(period dress) in their own “backyard” which in this case was the Wilderness Battlefield.
During the 2013-2014 school year, nearly 400 students from Orange County Public Schools pitched ideas and approximately 75 were fortunate to have their vodcasts selected for the OBF program in recognition of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War battle where Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee first met on the field of battle in May 1864. A third partner in the OBF project was the staff of the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Filming was shot on location: Ellwood Manor, the Wilderness Battlefield, the banks of the Rapidan River, and various locations throughout Orange County including the grounds of Montpelier. The vodcasts will eventually be housed in and become part of the official interpretive materials at the national park.
What do other students think about their experiences? As Ellie Robinson assessed her involvement, “This project has been my life this year. I’ll do extra work for [it] by my own choice. It has taught me so much more about the Civil War. I’ve learned about the home front and the battlefield,” Ivy Huff proclaimed, “Out of every extra-curricular activity I have been a part of at school, this was the very best. I loved everything about this process.” When asked to reflect on their experience this year, many students saw the importance of what they had learned that went beyond the project. “[It] was an experience I will never forget. We got to work in groups, which is a skill I will have to use all throughout my life,” said Emma Browning. “These things in our videos are dug out of primary sources. In our case all we had was a diary. That means you have to pull the info as it is not told to you like in a textbook,” added John Ashley.
Others focused on technical skills they gained like Roxanne Akers who emphasized, “I learned a lot from this project. I have learned how to use the filming equipment. I feel accomplished. ” Anna Weese-Grubb focused on the history learned when she stated, “This project …was a wonderful way to explore the Civil War more in detail. For a person who loves history, this project was pretty much the best idea ever.” Echoing the significance of the historical experience, Bailee Miller expressed her appreciation of the soldiers, “I’ve learned that the pride we carry as a country from the courage of these men are deeper than the eye can see.” Sierra Drew reflected, “It has taught me the hardships and problems that the soldiers faced. They were very brave and fought for what they wanted/believed in. It also helped me understand that it was very important to learn this because it’s what made our country like this today. Not only did it teach me history lessons or how to make a movie but that I need to be responsible and always on task.”
Many lessons from many students—all acknowledging that the program was hard work and that learning to work in a group was essential to success. The students emphasized the friendships they made and the fun they had learning in a way that is not the traditional classroom experience. However, the year was not without stress. In October the federal government shut down, and no visitation or filming could occur on National Park land during that time. Further, the worst winter in recent memory caused shooting to be rescheduled on six different occasions. In February the shooting schedule was so tight that film crews were shooting around snow covered ground to replicate the hot drought-ridden ground of May 1864. There were challenges, but the students and teachers persevered and were able to complete the vodcasts on time.
“It has allowed students to get outside of their multiple choice comfort level [referencing the state’s Standards of Learning assessments],” acknowledged Jennifer Conley, PHMS 7th grade history teacher. “The students who have worked together have created a bond with each other and with me as we have weathered the storm through countless changes, roadblocks, and snow days! I am so proud of these students and their hard work.” Likewise in spite of the challenges, LGMS 7th grade teacher Robert Stewart has a similar perspective, “The JTHG project this year has challenged both educator and student alike to convey the importance of the American Civil War to a larger audience than just the immediate classroom environment. Students have pushed themselves and their peers to adapt and master video software technology, knowledge of local history, and form working relationships with their peers. The Journey Through Hallowed Ground experience will be the capstone for many Locust Grove Middle Schools students.”
For me at the division level, this program was “a dream come true” for us. The year before the OBF experience, I had been collaborating with Bill Berry, the district’s director of elementary instruction, other local historians, and Leigh Mawyer of Orange County Department of Tourism to expand the way we taught local history for our students. Every day as our students rode their buses to school, they travelled past battlefields, Presidents’ homes, and other places of historical significance which they did not know or appreciate. We were committed to changing the way that our students saw the historically rich county in which we lived, but we did not have the “vehicle” to achieve that change. Cate Magennis Wyatt, president of JTHG, and Jessie Aucoin, Director of Educational Programs, provided that for us through the vodcast experience. In addition to providing our faculty and students an experience in project-based learning, JTHG supplied the costumes, cameras, computers, and editing software. Jessie organized the shooting locations and film schedules, provided expertise in filming and editing, and held our hands during the government shutdown and snow days.
Now that we have the knowledge base, we will purchase our own equipment and will replicate the experience next year with an emphasis on another era of Orange County history. In fact, our 7th graders who are now vodcast experts will mentor our 6th graders to create vodcasts during the 2014-15 school year. The local history project will continue in a format that will benefit visitors and residents alike. The beauty in what Cate and Jessie have shown us is how history should be taught–not out of a textbook or with worksheets but hands on through research with primary source documents where students own their learning and bring to life the stories of those that came before us. By finding meaning in these stories and connecting those lessons to today’s world, our students can serve others by creating a legacy to share digitally with students their own age across the U.S. The students and staff of Orange County schools are sincerely grateful to JTHG for this experience, or as Megan Smith enthusiastically affirmed, “Thank you for choosing us!”