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Know Your Town; Let Your Town Know You!

Katherine Coady and Howard Herbert
East Brunswick, New Jersey

Subject: Art, Language Arts, Science, Photography
Grade: 1-6

"Do you mind if we take your picture?" With those words, students from three East Brunswick, New Jersey, public schools easily gained access to an array of local resources and, through them, to new perspectives and a better understanding of their town. "What started out as a social studies project, limited in its scope and target population, quickly became an interdisciplinary program whose spin-offs extended to the schools' entire student body," report Curriculum Center teachers Katherine Coady and Howard Herbert. "It seemed that everyone wanted to get into the picture!"

"While our town is generally considered to be a moderately affluent, middle-class suburban community, it actually consists of several neighborhoods whose families differ from each other in terms of socio-economic status. This project involved children from three schools that reflect the diversity of our student population. One school is in a solid, blue collar, working-class neighborhood. A second school is in an older section of town. The school's pupils comprise the children of mostly lower-middle-class families; children of very affluent parents from another part of town are bused to this school. The third school serves a moderately well-to-do, middle-class neighborhood."

"Although we designed the project to serve pupils participating in our program for the gifted and talented in grades four through six, it became evident that the project was serving the entire range of our pupil population," agree Coady and Herbert. "Youngsters in our gifted and talented program conceived, planned, and organized the various phases of the project. Virtually the entire population of one school and the relevant grades in two others participated in the project's execution phase. If other teachers are trying to determine if the project is replicable with their own students, our conclusion is an affirmative one.

"As soon as we presented the 'Know Your Town' idea, the project assumed a direction of its own. Participants at each school molded the idea to suit their needs and interests. The children, in groups of five to seven, generated lists of local places, events, people, and other items about which they wanted to know more. We then helped them plan local trips and walking tours, arrange interviews, attend government meetings, and participate in a variety of other activities.

"From these introductory experiences, several directions emerged. At Bowne-Munro School, the youngsters concluded that the most appropriate way to proceed would be to begin by using the resources (human and physical) of the East Brunswick Historical Museum located in the state-designated historical district within walking distance of their school. One group at Memorial School focused on the workings of our township government; another group studied the township's master plan and identified commercial blight along the Route 18 strip as a major local problem. Central School students organized themselves into the 'Rainbow News Team.' As a roving journalistic crew, they focused on township life, doing photographic and video-tape essays. In almost all activities, photography played a vital role, for the camera's presence required whoever was in charge to structure experiences that allowed the children to do things rather than merely to listen to someone deliver a talk.

"One of the most outstanding features of this project was the overwhelming response that we received from people who sought to help us with and to participate in 'Know Your Town.' Among those who assisted us were: municipal government officials; teachers and principals; officers, associates, and volunteers at the East Brunswick Heritage Museum; township store managers and merchants; a farm-equipment store manager (who is providing a helicopter for us to take aerial shots of our town); the manager of the local-access cable television station, and ordinary citizens, many and dear, who stopped to help or offer advice, assisted with logistics, volunteered to instruct, and voiced enthusiastic encouragement.

"By the project's conclusion, we initially expected that students would have conceived, planned, organized, and executed a pictorial study of a topic they had researched; developed information-gathering skills that include using sources (interviews, old photographs and newspapers, family scrapbooks, diaries, township records) that are not traditional for elementary school children, and finally, developed a sense of pride in their community.

"As the project drew to a conclusion, other outcomes, unintended, also emerged. Students gained an appreciation of the problems facing their community; learned to communicate with, respect, and enjoy the company of senior citizens; interacted with a wide variety of adults; became aware of a variety of careers; understood the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge, and developed a new perspective on people, places, and things.

"It is this last outcome that especially highlights photography's impact on student learning. We never realized, until our children used the camera, how it would impel them to look at their subjects with more discerning eyes, from various angles, and in different settings. For example, they 'saw' contrasts such as illustrated in their photograph of a colonial cemetery with suburban development housing in the background. What's more, they established new contrasts, such as their juxtaposition of a Route 18 commercial strip photograph with a beautifully landscaped home, that neither they nor we had considered before. This new 'eye' provides the potential for on-going, novel and unexpected learning.

"Additional outcomes, not in student behavioral terms but important nonetheless, also became apparent. Township citizens, public officials, and business people better understood and appreciated the goals of the public school system. Furthermore, township and school system officials communicated and interacted more extensively among themselves and between their respective jurisdictions."

What Materials Did The Project Require?

"The children used a 35 mm camera and film to document the entire scope of our project. Final, formal, pictorial essays -- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Planning and Lack of Planning in East Brunswick ... Old East Brunswick: A Look Into The Past ... How Our Municipal Government Works -- will supplement the album. We also shall present a slide presentation for parents and the school board in the fall.

"The children videotaped several of the activities, such as a day in mock court; hazards and danger spots; new businesses; sixth-grade Olympics; beauty spots; the 'Know Your Town' Game Show, and selected interviews. They also plan to tape Tom Sawyer Day and a mid-19th-century festival.

"Using a super 8 movie camera, the children created a fast-action, time-lapse collage of the confusing signs and congested traffic along Route 18. They supplemented the visual presentation with a musical background."

Just How Successful Was This Project?

"This project has been a major success. From the feedback we received from principals, regular classroom teachers, the children who participated, their parents, and the hordes of others who helped us and became part of 'Know Your Town,' we are convinced that we have found a viable, exciting, and creative way to allow our students to break away from compartmentalized textbook learning and experience meaningful, interdisciplinary problem-solving.

"As one participant noted, 'One of the things I learned was how important it is that everyone works as a group. I also learned that you have to be willing to put in time and effort for the play, skit, or movie to be a success.'

"Obvious, too, is the enthusiasm that the project engendered, with people dressing in colonial garb, store managers inviting pupils 'behind the scenes,' and township officials virtually turning over the municipal complex to our youngsters. Special relationships blossomed, exemplified by the students making flower arrangements for presentation at Christmas time to the senior citizens who had so warmly responded to their efforts to learn about historical East Brunswick."

What About Costs?

"The cost of replicating this project is minimal. Aside from the start-up cost of buying a 35 mm camera, the only major ongoing cost is for purchasing and developing the film. Other 'expenses' such as transportation, certain materials, and teachers' released time for special events may be absorbed elsewhere in the budget. Then, too, money serves only to allow one to buy goods or services, and we found that people often volunteered to provide our children with the former, the latter, or both!"

Activities, Activities, Activities!

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