VFH’s African American Programs, Encyclopedia Virginia, and With Good Reason recently partnered with James Madison’s Montpelier for an interactive high school symposium exploring race, monuments, and memorials. The two-day program brought 200 juniors from Albemarle County public schools to the presidential house museum, where they engaged with local and national designers, museum professionals, media experts, and educators. Albemarle County is one of ten school systems nationwide to receive a $20,000 grant through the LRNG Innovators Challenge, an initiative supported by The National Writing Project, John Legend’s Show Me Campaign, and the MacArthur Foundation. The Montpelier symposium was part of a year-long local project, called Let ‘Em Shine, which seeks to help U.S. History students critically and creatively examine monuments and memorials.
During a half-dozen, expert-led workshops and sessions, Albemarle, Monticello, and Western Albemarle high school 11th graders explored five questions.
- What constitutes a monument?
- Why do we build them?
- What stories do we tell through our public memorials and monuments?
- Who decides who is memorialized?
- What are possible methods of memorialization?
VFH worked with students to address all five questions.
Since its founding in 1974, VFH has been committed to preserving and sharing Virginia’s under-told and under-heard stories, especially those of African Americans, Virginia Indians, new immigrants, and women. That commitment is reflected across VFH’s thirteen programs whose work, in many ways, constitutes a more inclusive kind of memorial to Virginia’s diverse past. At the Let ‘Em Shine symposium, VFH staff presented examples of digital memorialization, before engaging students in a project-based learning activity that honored Montpelier’s enslaved community.
With Good Reason associate producer Kelley Libby introduced students to Unmonumental, her independently produced radio project that examines how Richmond remembers its past. The series shares the stories of neglected and less prominent historic sites, while also honoring the people who live in Richmond today. Encyclopedia Virginia director Peter Hedlund showcased the work of Virginia’s leading online historical resource. In the decade since its launch, Encyclopedia Virginia has published more than 1,000 entries and now features Google 360 virtual tours of more than thirty historic sites. Libby and Hedlund taught students how to use audio field recorders and Google 360 equipment. The students were then divided into two groups — one to capture audio, while the other focused on video.
The audio student group worked with Libby and Encyclopedia Virginia assistant editor Miranda Bennett to narrate and record content from Montpelier’s new, critically acclaimed exhibition on slavery, The Mere Distinction of Colour. Students recited the known names of the enslaved and described their lives at Montpelier. The video group joined Hedlund and VFH director of African American programs Justin Reid in Montpelier’s South Yard, where they recorded 360-degree videos of the newly reconstructed slave dwellings. The not-yet-completed final project will be a multi-sensory, digital memorial to the more than 300 women, men, and children enslaved at Montpelier. When completed, this memorial will be viewable online and on mobile devices using Google Cardboard virtual reality glasses.
The Let ‘Em Shine symposium is just one example of VFH’s commitment to helping students explore our shared history so that they can better understand their world and the people in it. In 2017 VFH’s Virginia Festival of the Book engaged approximately 10,000 students in face to face conversations with authors. Our Grants & Community program holds regular “Content Academies” that help K-12 teachers teach difficult topics like immigration, slavery, and Virginia Indian and civil rights history. And our Center for the Book engages more than 1,000 students from across the state in the Letters About Literature writing competition every year.
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