Chalk Talk: Students spellbound by history in real life

  • JACQUI LAFRANCE

For the Gazette
Published: 11/17/2022 3:38:13 PM

At this time last year, my grade 4 English Language Learner students at Center Pepin School in Easthampton were hard at work coming up with questions to ask our dear neighbor, Ms. Casagrande and her family. We were engaged in writing interview questions as part of a larger schoolwide and yearlong history project since we would be moving to a brand new building, Mountain View School, the following fall. We wanted to record important school and town history before the buildings were abandoned and the sounds of children playing at recess no longer animated the downtown.

Before we could formulate our questions, we needed to research the history of the last century and learn some new words such as timeline, century, technology and invention. Students worked on their own personal timelines, recording when they were born, when siblings were born, when they started kindergarten, and other important events in their lives. After creating our personal timelines, we got to work on our Center Pepin timeline, which began in 1905, over 100 years ago.

We then compiled a list of inventions to add to the timeline. Students excitedly chose inventions they were interested in such as the telephone, television, the internet, smart phones, etc. As students used Wikipedia to discover when these various 20th- and 21st-century inventions were mass-produced and sold to consumers, they added the invention to our school timeline. This work helped the children to formulate historical questions pertinent to our inquiry: What was life like for schoolchildren and families in Easthampton over the last 100 years?

The students were getting it! We excitedly co-created a list of about 25 questions. Because of COVID, we knew we needed to conduct our interview outside. And we needed to do it before it became too cold. In late October 2021 we met Ms. Casagrande’s son, Steve, out in their front yard. The students took turns asking their questions about what it was like to go to school at Center Pepin in the 1950s and 1960s. Steve talked about the old school furnaces, how most of the teachers walked to work, and how most families had one car.

The students were spellbound as Steve’s stories captured their imaginations and helped them to imagine what his childhood was like. They were connecting with the past and building community with each other, neighbors and the town. They were building knowledge as young citizens and they were intrigued to know that Ms. Casagrande herself was an immigrant. She came to the US and moved into her present house on Center St. in the 1950s. They asked her questions about how she learned English and if she knew other languages. They discovered they shared similar experiences with Ms. Casagrande and her family.

During our interview, the students asked Ms. Casagrande when she was born. They discovered she was turning 96 years old on Nov. 23! Working with school administrators, we planned a birthday celebration for Ms. Casagrande, to honor her and her many years of being a caring and kind neighbor. Our Grade 4 EL students held center stage as they took turns introducing the family to four classrooms of their fourth grade peers and our special quests. They were nervous about reading with a microphone in front of such a crowd, over 80 people. We talked about how we would have plenty of time to practice reading the script and that they weren’t going to be alone, we would all be together.

On the day of the event, they did a fabulous job. We were very proud of them. I think the experience of researching and asking important questions, writing and reading for a purpose and for an authentic audience, being instrumental in strengthening community ties and working as a team will stay with them for years to come.

Jacqui LaFrance has been working as an elementary English language teacher for over 13 years in high and low incidence English Language districts in Western Massachusetts. She is currently working as a program assistant and English language specialist for the EL Collaborations Project which is funded by the Library of Congress’s Emerging America program in association with the Massachusetts Council for Social Studies and the Collaborative for Educational Services in Northampton.


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