Lessons in learning: Warde students return to fifth grade
It was only a few years ago that Eva Filan was sitting in teacher Rich Curesky's classroom at Jennings School listening to juniors from Fairfield Warde High School give presentations on historical topics that augmented what she was learning as part of the fifth-grade curriculum.
Last Friday, the 16-year-old Filan was the Warde student standing in front of Curesky's class, along with classmate Victoria Edison, also 16, offering a lesson on Harriet Tubman, slavery and the Underground Railroad.
"It seems like just yesterday I was one of the kids listening to the high school students," Filan said.
She and Edison were among 19 Warde students presenting 13 projects to the elementary students. Other subjects were about the Pony Express, Mark Twain, California Gold Rush, the inventions of the telephone and telegraph.
Alyssa Stonoha read a book about Mark Twain. Lauren Shannon read about Harriet Tubman. Filan and Edison created a model of a safe house that would have been found along the Underground Railroad to give shelter to run-away slaves on their journey north.
"The journey was scary. Slaves would stay in the attic or basement," Edison said, impressing upon the young students the danger to slaves and to homeowners if they were caught.
Thomas Anania, 16, dressed like a cowboy for his presentation on cowboys along the Chisholm Trail in the 1800s. He told Curesky's students. He talked about cattle drives, branding, guns, spurs as a fashion statement and as a motivator of horses, and bandanas, which he said were used as "a face mop" to stop dust from getting into the cowboy's mouth and to wipe sweat from his brow.
Leeza Pannikodu, 16, had a chance to give a presentation in the classroom of her 9-year-old sister Rianna.
"I learned who Harriet Tubman was. It was interesting and cool," Rianna said.
Jack Bambach and Ian Duffy, both 16, also made a model of a home known to have been on the underground railroad in the 1850s. Their presentation to teacher Thea Cuccia's fourth-grade students prompted much interest and many questions. Eli Feay, 10, asked about the procedures slave owners and law men would use to hunt down run-away slaves. Katie Kornutik, 9, asked how the slaves traveled from plantations in the south to freedom in the north.
"I felt like this was a great experience to teach these kids. I could tell they were paying attention. They had a broad range of questions," said Irini Prifti, 16.
Greg Vogt, 9, a fourth-grader in Cuccia's classroom, was riveted by Bambach and Duffy's presentation.
"I thought it was very interesting. First of all I liked how they approached their projects. They used a visual model. They seemed to really plan out their presentation and they answered a lot of questions," Greg said. Greg said the high school students were well prepared and provided lots of details "which I appreciate. It helped me understand the subject better," Greg said.
The Warde students' presentations to elementary students were part of an annual research project initiative, currently in its 15th year, which was started by James D'Acosta, a National Board Certified Teacher in the Social Studies Department at Warde, when he first came to teach in the Fairfield school system. Each year D'Acosta has his 11th-grade U.S. history students do an independent study in which they can create a game, write a children's book or make a model related to their research topic.
The concept came from his personal experience as a student with independent study and his participation in the Connecticut Writing Project, which taught that students benefit from having their work published or presented to an audience.
"Students teaching students is an enriching, optimistic activity," D'Acosta said.
"I was always more engaged in independent study that in other school work," said D'Acosta, adding that he often learned more from those opportunities.
"The teachers who invite me, the administrators who welcome me into their buildings, the Board of Education members who come to see the presentations, they recognize the magic of students teaching students and nobody can translate that experience into performance on a standardized test," D'Acosta said.
Sue Brand, a member of the Board of Education, went from classroom to classroom to see some of the presentations. "I don't know that you can put a value on it. It was apparent to me that for the high school students and the elementary students that learning's cool," Brand said.
Cuccia said it gives the elementary school students a connection to what they're learning in history. She was able to tie in to Bambach and Duffy's presentation her class's study of cash crops earlier in the school year. "It deepens their understanding of the time period that they're studying, and it sets them up for next year," in fifth grade when they will study the Civil War, Cuccia said.
She also thinks the presentations gave the elementary school students a taste of high school expectations, the quality of the work that will be required of them.