From the pages of history, literature and the humanities, Crescenta Valley High School students created projects that made the world a better place.
By Mary O’KEEFE
or years classrooms have been mobile. As early as elementary school, students go on field trips to science museums and aquariums. But it is rare to find students combining their learned knowledge in history, English and the humanities out in the community with the main purpose of helping others.
For the first time, Crescenta Valley High School teachers Amber McLeod, Jean Mucic and Kristen Milano combined their classes for a special exercise in putting practical knowledge to use.
“We came up with the idea for the project as we reflected on the literature and the history the students covered. We wanted to respond to the fact that the literature in honors sophomore English covers quite difficult content, as does AP (advanced placement) European history,” said Milano.
McLeod added that throughout the year the students learn about some powerful historical events that are many times depressing. The teachers wanted the students to use those events as learning tools to develop community service programs.
“We discussed our belief that lessons we learn from literature and history are not there to depress us; in fact, they are there to inspire us to do better and to be better. John Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize speech, which the students read earlier in the year, reflects on this idea,” Milano said.
The projects were far-reaching, personal and well researched. Each student group had to come up with an idea that was founded in history, humanities and English literature. They then took that idea into the world. The students covered diverse topics including stress among their peers and how to deal with it in a positive way, and helping rescue dogs that are brutally tortured and then slated to be used as a food source in other countries.
At their presentations in the last weeks of school it was obvious each group took time to search and find the project they felt passionate about. What was particularly impressive was how each project had a profound and lasting impact on their lives.
Adam Aronovsky, Timothy Choi, Armen Karaekyan and Kevin Park’s project was titled “Happy, Happy Hippos.” They first looked into the meaning of happiness in America and other countries. They examined how characters in literature created their own happiness.
“By seeing past stigmas and directly seeking each other’s friendship, Scout and Boo found happiness both together and individually,” the group said referencing “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Drawing upon history, the group looked at the European refugee crisis Pieds Noirs (Black Feet). The Blackfeet were people who fled from Northern African nations to mainland France in the mid-20th century. The students referred to the difficulties the immigrants encountered once they arrived. The country did little to help them adapt to French life and they felt like outsiders. The students then compared that to students who come to CVHS from other countries and are learning the language.
“We find that many ELD (English Language Development) learners lack the support networks and social mobility of natural English speakers,” the group stated in their presentation.
They added the students felt isolated and the group wanted to reach out to them. Their goal was simple: “Bridge that Gap.” They went to the classroom where there were ELD students and helped them by tutoring and offering friendship.
Woojin Kim, Sam Koh, Richard Lee, William Lee and Mitchel Templos also dealt with a type of isolation in their presentation, but in regard to social isolation at elementary schools. Their group was titled “The Buddy Bench Project.”
They found that during recess and lunch some elementary school kids were being left out, which led to loneliness. In some cases the students were too shy to make connections with others or lacked social skills. The high school students referenced literature and the history of the Holocaust during World War II. They quoted Holocaust survivor Shela Altaraz: “After the Holocaust I was 14 … I had no one. For years, I moved to Israel and met my husband … [now] I have an amazing family. We always had Friday night meals together. I’d say, ‘Everyone at this table is mine. They’re all mine.’”
Knowing how important the feeling of belonging is, the group created a Buddy Bench on the playground. Whenever a student felt alone they would sit on the bench and other students would reach out to them. The theory is when students see other students in need they will reach out. Other groups had already tested the system in other areas throughout the country and the CVHS group found that it worked well in their area schools. The benches are still in place.
From helping kids to helping seniors came the Mountview Game Night. Matt Bomar, Kevin Faeustle, Colin FitzGerald, Andrew Pingry and Charles Pingry wanted to reach out to senior citizens at Mountview Assisted Living Facility in Montrose. Their mission was to “inspire hope and happiness by showing compassion to those who feel excluded from leaving their mark on today’s world.”
They looked at the differences between exclusivity and inclusivity and referenced how women were excluded throughout history, specifically explained in Simone de Beauvoir’s book, “The Second Sex.”
They concluded that inclusion fosters hope and happiness and took those findings to the residents at the assisted living facility. The students hosted a game night at Mountview and spent time talking to the residents. They listened as the residents shared their living history. The group found that often it was just the act of listening that made a great difference in the lives of the residents.
In their conclusion the group stated, “The English and history examples made us see that we need to create happiness by including those who are excluded by society today.”
The teachers were impressed at how thoughtful and successful the projects were.
“Next year will be my 20th year teaching and I can say that our Humanities Block (the project with all three teachers) has allowed me to expand my repertoire,” Mucic said.
“The idea that it is important to believe that people can become better and improve, that the lessons we learn from reading (whether historical or literary) are the ‘bright rally flags of hope,’” Milano added. “We certainly plan to do the project again next year. Many students shared that it was their favorite assignment of the year.”