Moving beyond four walls

brianocallaghan_tricycle.jpg  He liked to tear around on his tricycle.   He died in Vietnam when he was 25.   His name is Brian O’Callaghan and he is one of the many soldiers whose name appears on the Vietnam Wall.

 His sister shared this photo with one of our students as part of a project our junior English AP students are doing, preparing brief video memorials for soldiers whose names appear on the Vietnam Wall.

We used to do this project on posterboard.  Last year, we decided to move it to the web, so that it would truly be more of a shared project that families and other veterans could view or respond to.

We have received so many moving letters from Veterans and family members with whom our students have been in contact, more moving and personal than I could have imagined.   Letters like this one from Rick Lewis–

“One of my Vietnam buddies . . . has contacted me and asked me to provide some information for this project. His exact words to me were, ‘Rick, you are getting your wish. Sarge will be remembered long after we are gone.'”

He wrote us about his lifelong wish that his best friend would be memorialized somehow:

“Your school is about to do something that none of us thought would ever happen. Our beloved leader will be known to many in a time that others have been forgotten. You truly are paying a tribute to one of the finest men that ever lived.”

Imagine your students receiving a letter like that. 

When I think of recent debates about the value of technology in schools, I think of what, really unwittingly, has happened with this project.   Our decision to take a leap of faith, and figure out the logistics of creating and putting these video memorials online has burgeoned into something important for veterans and family members far beyond our school walls.

Our students are seeing the power of real-life research, the power of interviewing and delving into local records for information.  And seeing the power of their voice in the lives of others.

We’re relying on the power of email, databases, internet sites, books, scanners, digital video recorders, blogs, wikis, and software like powerpoint, photostory, iMovie, Voicethread, and lcd projectors in the classroom for sharing the presentations.   The reach of this once small project couldn’t have been achieved in any other way, and it’s taken all of us–teachers, tech staff, and library staff working together to bring it together.

vietnamvet.jpg Yesterday, a swift boat pilot made a surprise visit to a classroom to present one of our students (whose project was about a fellow swift boat pilot who had died) with a memorial pin and tshirt for her efforts.   His wife emailed me afterwards that some of the details our student included in her presentation(which wasn’t about a soldier our guest knew) had actually involved him personally   The connections that are woven into our lives are so unexpected sometimes.

As I write this I am thinking of what Marco Torres’ asked us in his presentation at the TCEA conference last week–

What channels are we providing for our students?

There are so many gifts waiting in our own communities, so many stories to be told that our students can learn from, stories like Brian’s and Rick’s.  We had no idea this project would become what it is and I feel humble to even be part of it.  

And it’s not about the tools involved, but the tools in service of the learning.  I’m sure someone wiser than I coined that phrase.

But we also can’t dismiss the tools out of hand, because there are times they are the best and only way to make connections beyond the four walls of our classrooms, libraries, or schools.   And what power there is in those connections for our students, and also for our communities, as Marco Torres’ work demonstrates so well.

If you’d like to see last year’s projects, or comment on our blog, or see this year’s once they are posted, please share with us.

And let’s keep moving our students to, as Marco Torres calls it, the stories behind the facts, because that is where the real learning lies.

(and thanks to  Sandra Coker, Becky Stucky, Michelle Crocker, Valerie Taylor and Joel Adkins for your inspiration and work.)

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