Hometown Discovery: Learning Locally, Thinking Globally

Hometown Discovery:
Learning Locally, Thinking Globally


MediaSavage Productions
Brooklyn, N.Y.

CYRIL J. WELLER, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction
Ithaca City School District
Ithaca, N.Y.

PETER SOMMER, Headmaster
North Shore Hebrew Academy
Great Neck, N.Y.

Discovery is a powerful learning experience for children. We all remember various "first experiences" in our lives. As children enter secondary school, creating this sense of wonder is increasingly a challenge for educators. By focusing on local and regional history, Hometown Discovery sparks memorable, relevant learning experiences.

Hometown Discovery builds on the belief that rewarding discoveries are attainable for students of all ages, providing that the learning activities are rooted in students' experiences and interests. Since the creation of a multimedia presentation involves artwork, research, interviewing, videotaping, writing and computer technology, the Hometown Discovery Project provides opportunities for a wide range of student talents and cooperative learning experiences.

Every Community Is a Metaphor
Hometown Discovery began in 1994 in collaboration with the SUNY New Paltz School of Education, and the Tri-Valley Central School District in Grahamsville, N.Y. Gordon Churchwell, writer, filmmaker, new media specialist and amateur local historian, saw an opportunity to use technology to merge the interests of promoting and preserving community with the community's own educational process. In addition, Hometown Discovery uses the lessons of every community's past to explain the universals of American History.

For example, the Hudson Valley, where Churchwell grew up and where the Tri-Valley district is located, was one of the primary corridors of New World expansion. It saw some of the first contact between Native Americans and Europeans; received some of the first slaves to be imported into North America; was fought over by Britain and France, the two superpowers of the 18th Century; and contained some of the most culturally diverse colonies in the New World.

Tri-Valley was an excellent choice for the project's first steps. Cyril Weller, the high school's principal, was well-versed in technology, extremely supportive of innovative curriculum and professional development initiatives, and was actively encouraging teachers to take on the challenges of integrating technology into the curriculum. Tri-Valley's faculty was highly motivated, receptive to new ideas, and had many members who were interested in local history. Cheryl Hendrickson, the school system's technology director, had a strong interest in multimedia technologies, and a history of cultivating teacher involvement in technology projects.

Start With the Practical and Familiar
The Hometown Discovery model uses the existing curricula and existing needs within each school as a framework for creating technology projects. This approach, first of all, creates something useful, and second, employs the familiarity of existing curricula as a bridge to technology integration.

The creators of Hometown Discovery decided that one effective framework for a school-wide project would be to have high school students create interactive, interdisciplinary multimedia learning presentations younger, fourth grade-level students. Local history would be the topical "hook," as a local history curriculum is mandated by New York State. In essence, students would be teaching other students as part of the learning process.

The high school component was organized as an elective, recruiting ten students from the 9th and 10th grades, to achieve some continuity as the project progressed. These students ranged broadly in their skills and talents, from the eventual valedictorian of his class to a student who was struggling in the conventional sense, but was a highly gifted artist. The students also varied widely in their computer skills. Several had only rudimentary word-processing skills, while others could program in Lingo, the scripting language of Director.

Students were organized into production team of twos and threes. Teams met twice a week with Weller, Hendrickson, and consulting social studies and art teachers, plus once a week with Churchwell. He served as a general project consultant, orienting teachers and students to the fundamentals of new media design, production concepts and interactive strategies, as well as the basics of video documentation, animation and graphics production.

Real-World Client Model
We instituted a real-world "client" model. Since the point of the project was to create learning tools for 4th graders, the high school production teams took on 4th grade teachers as their clients. The students met with the teachers, asked them for a list of important curriculum topics, and then interviewed them as to their teaching styles and preferences. In some cases, they also observed classrooms in action.

Afterwards, each student team was required to pick a topic and submit a proposal containing a description of the project, the nature of its interactive teaching strategies, and its learning objectives for 4th graders. Additionally, each team had to provide a list of potential resources and a production schedule.

The production teams then met with the 4th grade teachers with proposals and storyboards. Each team was expected to maintain contact with the teachers, discussing important milestones in the project's design and production.

Community-based Collaboration
Each high school team's project shows how a local or regional history topic, rendered through leading-edge curriculum design, can illuminate global issues. Secondly, each project shows how innovative partnerships with community institutions and individuals can result in state-of-the-art learning environments that link learners with their community. The student projects are listed and described below:

  • Exploring the Age of Discovery:
  • Henry Hudson's Third Voyage
  • This project, featuring a map of Hudson's voyage and journal entries describing his first contact with Indian tribes, explores the nature of cultural biases and the commercial motivations underlying the Age of Discovery. The presentation asks users to compare Hudson's experience with present-day encounters between European-based cultures and indigenous cultures in the Amazon rainforest. The Hudson project team consulted with Nicholas Burlakoff, director of the Half Moon Museum in Croton-on-the-Hudson.
  • Lenape Rituals & Ceremonies
  • This project is an exercise in comparative anthropology, ingeniously disguised as time travel. Two high school girls travel back in time to a Lenape (Delaware) Indian village to compare aspects of Lenape ritual culture -- creation stories, masks, body decoration -- with our own. It benefited from materials and expertise from Dr. Herbert Kraft of Seton Hall University, a Delaware Indian expert. Both the Hudson project and Lenape Rituals project also consulted with Dr. Laurence Hauptman of SUNY New Paltz, a nationally known expert on Iroquois, Mahican and Lenape cultures.
  • Lenape Lifeways
  • A virtual landscape surrounding an Indian village and a database of natural resources and their attributes provide the basis for life-skills problem solving, such as how to make a spearpoint. The presentation also compares Indian methods of production with modern, industrial methods. The Lenape Lifeways project involved consulting with and videotaping a primitive technologist, Jeffrey Gottlieb, who actually knapped a flint spearpoint for the presentation. Additional consultation also came from Andrew Angstrom, director of SUNY New Paltz's Ashokan Field Campus, an expert in environmentally oriented education.
  • The New York State Seal: What's In a Symbol?
  • This project explores how symbols create meaning by analyzing the graphic elements of the New York State Seal from a historical viewpoint. The presentation then asks 4th graders to re-imagine and create their own version of the seal as it would look today, by following a process model developed by high school students. Users can then compare their work with a high school art class given the same assignment. This project drew upon expertise and materials from the New York State Museum.
  • The Delaware & Hudson Canal:
  • Transportation Alternatives in the Early 19th Century
  • After listening to two 19th century entrepreneurs discuss the various alternatives of transporting coal from Pennsylvania to New York City (train, wagon, raft and canal), 4th graders are asked to calculate the best method by solving a math problem. The project involved a close collaboration with Vicki Doyle, director of the D&H Canal Museum, located in nearby High Falls, N.Y.

Community as Content & Production Resource
Hometown Discovery treats the community as a vast pool of consulting talent waiting to be tapped. Students and teachers collaborated directly in myriad ways with community-based experts, including museum staff and university scholars, as well as consulted with curriculum specialists from SUNY New Paltz's School of Education. Although teachers were often needed as initial liaisons, students were encouraged to contact sources directly, through phone calls, fax and email.

Equally important, we also drew upon the talents of local illustrators, filmmakers, computer graphics professionals and multimedia programmers, who gave presentations and consulted with production teams. Excellent sources for these talents are local community colleges, whose departments are vocation oriented.

Leveraged Learning
So how do you expand the intensive learning experience of a small group of students to include and benefit others? Our solution was to take every opportunity to involve other students -- at times whole classes -- in the learning process. Local artists, filmmakers and media professionals gave presentations to entire classes, in addition to Hometown Discovery production teams. Production teams, in turn, engaged entire classes in the artwork and scripting phases of projects.

For example, the production team for the New York State Seal project gave a presentation to an 11th grade art class, and then assigned the whole class the task of creating artwork. Other project teams regularly reviewed art portfolios, and recruited illustrators and animators from the school's general population. The result was a quadrupling of the number of participating students.

Modular Production
The conventional doctrine of television and multimedia production calls for discrete, linear stages: pre-production research, followed by design, field production, postproduction, and so on. While we followed this scheme to some degree since planning is essential, students preferred to build projects in modules. So, for example, we often built the main interface for a project as soon as we felt comfortable with our treatment of the subject matter. Multimedia, with its branching design, lends itself to this "modular" approach, and this methodology, in the end, is much more practically suited to students' capabilities, and provides concrete reinforcement to get projects to completion.

Hometown Discovery projects have been authored on both PC and Mac platforms. The fundamental production tools we used were Macromedia Director for multimedia authoring, Adobe Photoshop for image editing and Adobe Premiere for video editing, although other software can be easily substituted. A Canon A-1, Hi-8 video camera was used for video production.

At the moment presentations are designed to be read from hard drives for eventual mastering on CD-ROMs. While the Web is an obvious, eventual delivery system for Hometown Discovery, at the project's inception in 1994, the capabilities of the Web were severely limited.

Students as Educators
In the Hometown Discovery model, student-created projects are meant to be used as learning tools directly in the classroom. The Canal project was the first to be finished in a suitable form and was tested on several classes of 4th graders.

The project, which required users to navigate through an interactive discussion between two 19th century entrepreneurs, and then solve a math problem to arrive at the best transportation alternative to transport coal, sparked considerable debate among 4th graders. They enjoyed having a multimedia complement to the conventional approach. Plus the pedagogical logic of community-based learning was borne out when 4th graders later visited the D&H Canal Museum, which had collaborated in the design of the presentation.

Intra-school synergies also emerged. Fourth graders loved the fact that high school students had created a learning tool just for them. In turn, high school students received a tremendous motivational boost from seeing the 4th graders' reaction to their work.

Second Hometown Discovery Project
A second Hometown Discovery Project was launched in the spring of 1996 at the North Shore Hebrew Academy, under the direction of Peter Sommer, headmaster. The school is located in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island.

Here the overall strategy and project's emphasis were slightly different. The curricular challenge was to merge a General Education section on Ancient History with a Judaic curriculum, as well as add a community-based component. The logistical and technological challenge was to get as many students involved in a technology project in a school whose technology base was in the early stages of development.

Our solution to the curricular problem was to use the Great Neck Jewish community's collective memory of Jewish history as the starting point for "time-travel." For example, students videotaped members of the community to create an interface consisting of a video clip "gallery of memories" of Jerusalem, which are then used as jumping off points to explore the various stages of the city's past. Branching then allows users to explore other contemporaneous cultures, integrating Jewish history with ancient history.

The technology issue was addressed by having a small team of computer-adept 8th-grade students act as the production department for a 6th-grade class, whose members actually designed and produced the visual materials and scripts for the project's presentation. We were thus able to engage the maximum number of students in a technology-related project, even though we had a limited number of multimedia-capable computers.

Results and Future Applications
One practical and qualitative example of Hometown Discovery's success and appeal is how project presentations found their way into students' graduation portfolios. Several participants used their presentations as part of their college application process -- to the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, University of Rochester and SUNY New Paltz -- with successful results.

As digital technologies, educational goals and community interest in education progress and converge, an application of the Hometown Discovery model to multi-school consortium projects is one clear, future direction. A geographically clustered consortium of schools, museums and colleges could create regionally specific curriculum capable of being delivered over the Web or higher-speed school intranets.

In addition, the exhibition of student- and teacher-created work in museums and other public institutions, as part of public education initiatives, would create a new standard of quality and motivation to student work and professional development. It would also introduce a new level of community interaction and investment in the educational process.

Hometown Discovery is presently pursuing these goals in the New York metropolitan area.

Gordon Churchwell, creator of Hometown Discovery, is a writer, documentary filmmaker and marketing consultant. He has written and produced award-winning documentaries for broadcast and public television. He originated and is currently developing a project with a major medical school to create Internet-delivered software to assess the health status of inner-city children. E-mail: [email protected]

Cyril Weller is Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for the Ithaca City School District. He has previously served as an English teacher, curriculum supervisor and high school principal. When principal at Tri-Valley High School, he led implementation of Hometown Discovery, which earned a visit from Dr. Richard Mills, NY State Commissioner of Education. Weller has taught graduate education courses in interdisciplinary learning, served as a consultant on state curriculum and assessment projects, and led programs that earned state and national recognition. E-mail: ????

Peter Sommer is headmaster of North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, N.Y. He was the former head of the Middle School at Dalton, in Manhattan. E-mail: ???

Products or companies mentioned:

  • Macromedia Director; Macromedia, phone & URL
  • Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, & Freehand; Adobe Systems Corp., phone & URL
  • Canon A-1 video camera; Canon, phone & URL, Sidebar

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.