Mt. Abe kids collect hometown stories
BRISTOL — Trekking up and down Main Street, a handful of Mount Abraham Union High School students set out on their own version of “Mythbusters,” eager to investigate claims of the supernatural on South Mountain, the ridge that rises south of the heart of Bristol village.
Totting a video camera, 10th-graders Lindsay Hanson, Saddie Roy and Marley Cromis stopped shopkeepers, customers at the town Laundromat, and members of the Bristol Historical Society with questions about the mountain. Along the way, they unearthed fantastic stories about buried treasure, “money diggings,” claims of a reincarnated dog guarding a hidden stash of silver, and even tales about the ghost of a boy who perished on the peak.
Meanwhile, across town, another group of sophomores investigated race relations in early Bristol history. A hop, skip and a jump away, a group of Monkton Central School alumni dug up history about Native Americans at Monkton Pond. To the north, in Starksboro, students gathered around some of the town’s founding documents printed on deer hide.
Remarkably, this flurry of historical story-catching took place on just one day in early October, when more than 100 Mount Abe 10th-graders left the classroom and took to the streets of their hometowns.
In the first annual incarnation of a project designed to chronicle community stories, these students traded in their textbooks for a new source of local history: their neighbors.
“To have a 15-year-old sit down with a 93-year-old — that right there is priceless,” said Scott Beckwith, a 10th-grade history teacher at the high school.
Beckwith and Kristen Farrell, who both teach the U.S. history course every sophomore at the high school takes, organized the October project after attending a workshop last summer at the Vermont Folklife Center. With guidance from the Folklife Center, they dreamed up a project that would blend old-fashioned storytelling with 21st century documentary work, and would propel students back into the communities where they grew up.
Too often, Beckwith and Farrell agreed, students and teachers lose sight of their hometown communities in the union high school, so they divided students up into groups that corresponded with their feeder elementary schools.
“It’s all Bristol, Bristol, Bristol,” said Farrell. The high school’s four other feeder towns, in the meantime, are lost in the shuffle.
Getting to see her students reconnect with their hometowns made a powerful impression on Farrell, who said the project gave her a new perspective into the lives of her students before they found themselves at Mount Abe. She was glad to begin seeing the 10th-graders not just as high school students but also as residents of Monkton or Starksboro or any of the five towns that feed the union high school.
“The kids are very proud of where they come from,” Beckwith said. “They get integrated (into the high school), and this is a way for them to shine. We tried to have them go back into their communities and come share those stories.”
Several weeks of research went into the projects. That culminated in one day of field research: “X-Day” in early October, when all of Mount Abe’s students — except for the junior class — abandoned the school for a day of community service or field trips.
While the 11th-graders took a standardized test in a quiet building free of distractions, members of the senior class hiked to Beeman Elementary School in New Haven for a community service project, and the sophomores spread out into their hometowns to collect stories.
Lauren Parren, the school district’s technology coordinator, supervised a group in her hometown of Bristol. Parren paired up with Beckwith and Farrell to work on the technology side of the storytelling project: Every student group produced either an audio recording, video or photo slideshow about their project.
But even Parren said that the technology took a back seat after the day of community storytelling.
“The day itself was so incredibly rich,” said Parren. The students’ final projects, to her mind, felt secondary to the experience of taking time to sit down with members of their communities and hear their stories.
Volunteers included members of the local historical societies, officials from town offices, and longtime residents who chimed in with their own memories.
Still, Parren said, producing digital stories is a way for students to give back to the communities after elders, and others, share their stories. Eventually the school hopes to work with the Vermont Folklife Center to build a “Discovering Community” archive, and the school may work with the Middlebury center in the spring to put students’ stories on display.
In Monkton, sophomores Casey Ogden, Aiden Collins and Sarah Bevet spent the day investigating early Abenaki settlements there. They photographed areas where artifacts had been found, and spoke with local farmers about how the Abenaki had first cultivated some of Monkton’s fertile soil.
But they also soon stumbled upon a problem.
“Overall, I was quite surprised by how little information there was on the Native Americans in the area,” Ogden said.
In the absence of documented history about Monkton’s Abenaki community, Ogden said their project morphed into an explanation of what information was known, as well as a suggestion for future research.
Their experience got at exactly the lesson that Beckwith and Farrell had in mind: The students adapted to problems in their research, gathered information from first-person sources, and had to think critically about how history is chronicled and passed down.
“They rise to the occasion,” said Beckwith. “It’s the idea that students themselves become historians.”