History in the Making
William L. Moore is not a name you will find in most history textbooks covering the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was neither a U.S. president nor an oratorical leader in the manner of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Moore was a white postal worker in Baltimore, Maryland, who fought against racial segregation by staging protests and going on marches—not as a member of a large organization, but as a lone citizen: one man raising his voice against pervasive social injustice.
His life ended early when he was shot and killed in 1963 during one of his marches. Though newspapers reported on his death and folk singer Phil Ochs wrote a song about him, Moore's story eventually faded into obscurity.
There are many such stories in the shadows of history—stories of men and women taking heroic action against bigotry and injustice, fighting to promote respect and understanding among all people. And the lessons to be learned from many of these stories are still valid and timely: You don't have to be famous to be a hero. Good character matters. One person can make a difference.
History teacher Norman Conard has been helping young people discover such stories throughout more than three decades as an educator. His approach has been largely project-based: Students learn about these little-known figures in American history by creating films and plays about them. Many of these projects have entered National History Day competitions. Many have won.
The most famous student history project that Conard helped shepherd was Life in a Jar, a play about a Polish Catholic social worker named Irena Sendler who rescued 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Like Moore, Sendler had been all but forgotten by history, living in Warsaw in relative obscurity. Then, in 1999, four of Conard's students discovered her story and wrote a play about her called Life in a Jar, so named for the jars in which Sendler had hidden the names of the children she rescued. The play drew widespread acclaim, first in Kansas, then across the nation, and eventually reached the attention of millions of people worldwide. In 2007, Sendler was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Recently Conard has been working on another venture to help young people delve into history for little-known stories of unsung heroes through project-based learning. As executive director of the Lowell Milken Center, Conard and his staff—comprised of Megan Felt, Jaime Walker and Maria Bahr—have been working with educators and students around the country—and even in Israel—developing a wide variety of history projects that embody the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, meaning "repair the world."
Megan Felt performs inLife in a Jar.
Foundation Chairman Lowell Milken speaks with the founders of the Life in a Jar project.
Students Kai and Renada perform a scene from their play about Frederick Douglass.
Norman Conard and Dr. Jane Foley, senior advisor to the Lowell Milken Center
Holocaust survivor Bronia Roslowoeski with students who are telling her story
These projects include a film about Hispanic soldiers who fought for America during World War II and the Korean War; a project about a Holocaust survivor now living in Kansas City; a play about the little-known musical talent of abolitionist Frederick Douglass; an exploration of the Jewish past of Fort Scott, Kansas; and a project about postal worker William L. Moore, whose story is no longer hidden in history's shadows but is being used to teach young people about civil rights, courage and the difference one person can make in the world.
"By working on projects about unsung heroes who have made an impact on the world, students learn about history in an exciting, active and academically rigorous way," said Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation and the Lowell Milken Center's founder and namesake. "Through these projects, students not only meet or exceed their states' social studies standards, but they also learn valuable lessons that history has to teach us about our world today and how to live and act within it."
As its mission statement declares, "The purpose of the Lowell Milken Center is to galvanize a movement for teaching respect and understanding among all people regardless of race, religion or creed. The Center promotes this mission throughout America and around the world through educational projects that feature unsung heroes as role models to 'repair the world.'"
In just 14 months since it opened its doors in August 2007, the Center has worked with a diverse group of educators and students to develop a wide range of dynamic projects.
"We've been extremely pleased with the number of teachers and educators involved and the outstanding projects that have been developed in the Center in just the first year," said Conard.
Some of the Center's project ideas originate with students and educators, who then ask for the Center's help in developing their idea to fruition. Other projects are the result of students and educators wanting to work on a history project but needing topic ideas, which the Center provides from a growing list that is already more than 20 pages long.
One exemplary project is "A Stradivarius and a Young Girl." While abolitionist Frederick Douglass is a famous figure in American history, not many people know that he was a talented violinist who owned a Stradivarius violin, which he taught his children and grandson how to play. Before he died, Douglass bequeathed the Stradivarius to his grandson Joseph, a talented musician in his own right. Joseph began playing his grandfather's prized violin in concerts.
With help from the Center, two students wrote and performed a play based on this little-known aspect of Douglass's life, combining research and imagination to inhabit the lives of Douglass's grandson and great-granddaughter, gaining a deeper understanding of the subject than if they'd merely written a paper. The students entered their project in the National History Day competition in Washington, D.C., where they earned a "superior" rating.
Another Center project focused on the experiences of Bronia Roslowoeski, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and has traveled to numerous schools in the area to tell her story. Three junior high students from Fort Scott Christian Heights School in the Bourbon County area contacted Roslowoeski and developed a project around her life, which they called "Love the World."
"To see these students who have no Jewish background hug Bronia and begin a lifetime of caring about the Holocaust—it was very powerful," said Conard.
The project won second place at this year's Kansas History Day in the category of Junior Group Performance.
In addition to developing such projects, the Center has generated a wealth of supporting materials for educators to use, including modules, process papers, bibliographies, sample performances and documentaries.
The Center recently created a DVD study guide as a companion piece to the Life in a Jar DVD that the Milken Family Foundation helped produce. Teacher interest has been high, and the DVD has already been distributed to 900 schools around the country.
"Our hope is that the Center's work will not only encourage educators around the world to engage their students in project-based learning, but will also provide them with practical knowledge and materials on how to successfully execute these projects with their students," said Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards and senior advisor for the Lowell Milken Center.
The Lowell Milken Center is the result of a collaboration between two men whose commitment to excellence in education has impacted the lives of thousands of people.
Businessman and philanthropist Lowell Milken has been a pioneer in education reform over the past three decades, having established groundbreaking initiatives such as the Milken Educator Awards, which recognize and reward outstanding educators across the nation with public recognition and a substantial financial award, and the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP)™, a comprehensive strategy to attract, develop, motivate and retain talented people in the teaching profession.
At the same time, Conard, whose teaching career also spans three decades, has guided hundreds of students in creating outstanding history projects incorporating performing arts, multimedia, and film and video production—almost entirely at Uniontown High School in Uniontown, Kansas.
The two met in 1992, when Lowell presented Conard with a $25,000 Milken Educator Award. Since then, they have continued to exchange ideas on how to foster excellence in teaching.
When Lowell heard of the success Conard and his students were having with Life in a Jar, he offered his support, sponsoring performances of the play in Los Angeles and creating an educational DVD based on the project.
"I think Lowell creates a desire to learn in all of the initiatives he works with, which is exactly what a teacher does," said Conard.
Eventually, the two men began discussing how they could develop educational projects that bring to light unsung heroes such as Irena Sendler, whose actions teach respect and understanding among all people.
They discussed the concept of taking these projects to a broader audience, national in scope. As a result of these discussions, Conard and his students collaborated on a proposal for an international nonprofit organization that would change the world by developing projects that teach respect and understanding.
Conard's staff considered many different names for this new organization, eventually settling on the Lowell Milken Center in honor of the man and his foundation who supported their vision with his expertise, advice and funding.
In April 2007, the establishment of the Lowell Milken Center was formally announced at the Milken Family Foundation National Education Conference in Los Angeles. Four months later, the Lowell Milken Center opened its offices in Fort Scott, 17 miles east of Uniontown, underscoring the idea that no matter where you are, young people and their teachers have the power to promote respect and understanding and to "repair the world."
The staff at the Lowell Milken Center's headquarters in Fort Scott, Kansas, is comprised of Conard, his former student and Life in a Jar co-founder Megan Felt, and another Life in a Jar alumnus, Jaime Walker. A fourth team member, Maria Bahr, a teacher at Fort Scott Christian Heights School, joined the staff in August.
Felt, one of the original four students who discovered Irena Sendler's story in Conard's class and dramatized it in Life in a Jar, works with Conard to develop projects, determine topic ideas, find primary sources for research, write curriculum and update the Lowell Milken Center Web site (www.lowellmilkencenter.org). Felt also spends much of her time working with students and educators on specific projects, editing, critiquing and helping with research.
Students perform a scene from the life of Holocaust survivor Bronia Roslowoeski.
"They were incredible," said Conard. "What an outstanding project."
Walker is the Center's director of development, focusing on fundraising, grant writing and meeting with potential donors. She also often joins Felt in helping students and educators with their projects.
During the summer, the Lowell Milken Center staff was joined by two other outstanding educators who traveled to Fort Scott for three weeks of intensive exploration and discussion.
As the first-ever LMC Fellow and Intern, Michael Aw (MA '04) and Ashley Rippe worked with the Center's staff, learning about its projects and exploring its approach to project-based learning.
"I wish first-year teachers could come out here and visit the Center," said Rippe, who is now in her second year of teaching fifth grade at Ogden Elementary School in Ogden, Kansas, where Milken Educator Jim Armendariz (KS '04) is principal.
Aw, who teaches sixth-grade math at Hopedale Memorial School in Hopedale, Massachusetts, explored the Center's approach to project-based learning as a highly effective way to ensure that standards are being met.
"We don't necessarily have to just teach to the test," said Aw. "If students are doing a project, they're researching. While they're researching, they're learning how to read and write and do the kind of critical thinking they couldn't do on a worksheet."
Both Aw and Rippe were excited to learn about the many educational benefits of project-based learning at the Center, from the interdisciplinary nature of such projects to their ability to make history come alive for students.
"Ashley and I got goosebumps looking at a yearbook from 1957 with the Little Rock Nine in it," said Aw. "Imagine how excited our students would be to be able to touch history like that."
And as the Lowell Milken Center's projects have demonstrated, the study of history need not be about events and people in faraway places. Rippe was impressed by how many projects the Lowell Milken Center was able to find within Fort Scott alone.
"It makes me think there must be unsung heroes in Ogden that we don't even know about," said Rippe.
"There's rich history everywhere," Aw agreed. "Some of my students' homes in Hopedale were former hiding houses for the Underground Railroad. I'm excited about digging up that history."
In addition to the common benefits of project-based learning, the Lowell Milken Center's unique approach of focusing on unsung heroes who "repair the world" adds another element to the Center's projects: the opportunity to study character and values.
"As teachers, our main goal is obviously the academic knowledge," said Rippe. "But we're also working on the social growth of our children. We want them to leave our schools not only with a better knowledge of their community, but as better citizens."
At the end of their three weeks, Aw and Rippe were both brimming with excitement about the power and potential of the Center's educational approach.
"We're going back with a full bag of ideas," said Rippe. "It's sparked a fire within us."
"I don't think I've been this excited since I got the Milken Award," said Aw. "It's been quite an honor, a tremendous experience."
With a successful first year behind them, Conard and his staff have been working hard on developing projects for the new school year. Some are continuations or expansions of projects begun last year. Others are brand new.
"The one thing that we discovered in the first year of the Center," said Conard, "is that teachers are hungry for projects that are exciting to their students and help them learn about history and make a difference. They're looking for new projects to develop, new routines, new ideas and new learning opportunities everywhere. It is not just a local phenomenon. It's going on across the country."
The Center has also been receiving interest from abroad.
"We receive emails constantly from teachers around the world," said Conard. "It's not just America—this is an international center."
One particularly powerful message came to the Center from Richard Lariviere, executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of Kansas.
"I am deeply moved by your work," he wrote soon after visiting the Center. "Congratulations for bringing the magic of research and discovery to your students so effectively. This is a gift to them that they will never forget and one that your community can never repay. Teachers at every level and every stage of their career have a special place in my world. I admire what you have done and continue to do. Thank you for your good work."
For Conard, Felt and Walker, the first year of the Lowell Milken Center has been truly rewarding.
"This year has been such a great learning experience for me," said Felt. "I've been able to work with teachers and students all over the world to create projects that teach respect and understanding and that will impact these kids for the rest of their lives. And to see them grow and develop as they participate in these projects has touched me in a way I never expected."
"I've been very pleased with what we've been able to accomplish," said Walker. "We've been able to produce these amazing projects and speak to teachers everywhere who have been nothing but enthusiastic about what we're doing here. They think it's absolutely wonderful, important and unique: Why hasn't anyone else thought of this before? And what innovators we have in Lowell Milken and Norm Conard, that they would see this need and make it possible."
"What we're doing is not something that you'll find all over the country," said Conard. "People ask how many Lowell Milken Centers there are in the U.S. And the answer is one. It's something new."
For more information or to get involved, visit the Lowell Milken Center Web site at www.lowellmilkencenter.org.
For more information about Irena Sendler and Life in a Jar, visit www.irenasendler.org .
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