The Lesson Plan

Harpers Ferry reaches out to local students, and the impact spans generations.

By Scott Kirkwood

In 1988, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd watched as construction of a shopping mall was narrowly averted near Manassas National Battlefield in nearby Virginia, and he was determined to prevent the same thing from happening at Harpers Ferry. So he required elected officials in the county to consult with the Park Service before making any key decisions. And that’s how 30-year-old park historian Dennis Frye ended up speaking to a thoroughly disinterested audience of county commissioners that December, as the rolling hills of Schoolhouse Ridge were being eyed for a sprawling residential development. Frye told how Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson forced the largest surrender of U.S. troops during the Civil War, in the hopes that he might impress a few of the guests with his stories, and perhaps earn a few converts.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

After his presentation concluded, Frye and the commissioners drove to Schoolhouse Ridge in complete silence. It’s a story he still tells with all the drama and detail you’d expect from a park ranger: “We got out of our vehicle to await the others, and I found myself surrounded by the commissioners—five giant sequoias casting dark shadows over me,” he says. “One of the commissioners put his left hand on my shoulder and grasped it tightly, and extended his right index finger to within one inch of my nose, and he said, with a voice that thundered, ‘Nothing happened here, boy. Do you understand me? Nothing happened here.’”

That was the day Frye decided to make education a key component of the park’s outreach efforts. “Those men were totally ignorant of the events that had unfolded in their own backyard,” he says. “And that wasn’t their fault. It was a lack of education—a failure to learn about their own history. I knew that generation was lost forever, but I saw hope in future generations.”

Six months later Frye reached out to the next generation, with help from the chief of curriculum at the Jefferson County Schools, who just happened to be a former park ranger. The school arranged a field trip for every fifth- and sixth-grader in the county and the destination was—you guessed it—Schoolhouse Ridge. Seven hundred students learned about the history of Harpers Ferry in the Civil War, and the hope was that they would take the story back to their parents, too.

Over the next 11 years, more than 5,000 fifth-graders went through the same program; rangers visited their classrooms in the days before, and teachers offered more instruction in the weeks that followed.

Surprisingly, although Schoolhouse Ridge had indeed been zoned for development in 1988, a recession and banking crisis meant the land was practically unchanged. Then in 2000, another development proposal emerged, followed by a series of public meetings that stretched into 2002. This time around, the Park Service received hundreds of letters in support of the park; the county commission voted 5-0 in favor of battlefield preservation. “That’s what education did in a generation,” says Frye. “It completely changed people’s perspective.”

And Frye isn’t done yet. As the park’s chief of interpretation, he now oversees an active education program that continues to evolve. The latest incarnation resulted in a series of video podcasts produced by Harpers Ferry Middle School students, focusing on the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s ill-fated revolt—the spark that lit the fuse of the Civil War.

The Advisory Council for Historic Preservation provided the initiative for a new service-learning program, school principal Joe Spurgas threw his weight behind the idea, and the whole project was overseen by Angela Stokes, education program manager with the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, a nonprofit that links Civil War sites in the region. Seventy students from sixth- through eighth grade volunteered for the video podcast project. Each grade was tasked with producing two podcasts for their peers, choosing whatever angle sparked their interest. The Park Service gave the students primary source material like photos, and copies of journals and newspapers from the era. Each team had to create storyboards, write screenplays, choose their actors, cast their roles, and memorize their lines; students even made their own period clothing and some recorded their own music.

Then the real learning began. As the students recognized that they had no more than two minutes to convey the story to their peers, they were forced to make difficult choices about what to leave in and what to leave out, and they soon realized that history isn’t simply about dates, but about individual people simply living their lives. The resulting podcasts hit close to home: One team looked at how the children of John Brown responded to their father’s ambitious campaign to end slavery. Another looked at the experiences of the local children of Harpers Ferry, whose town was thrown into chaos 150 years ago. With the end product online for all to see, one generation of local students is planting a seed for yet another generation.

“Some of the younger kids we worked with years ago are voters now, and their children are already going through our second-grade program,” says Frye. “The national park is really woven into the fabric of the community through education. And it has led to improved relations with the county government, the city government, and all of our neighbors. That’s the value of education. No longer is there ignorance, no longer will somebody point a finger and say, ‘Nothing happened here.’”

This article appears in the Fall 2009 issue.

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