Making history on the radio with community partners
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Middle school students power Brattleboro’s radio days
Brattleboro, Vermont was incorporated back in 1753, a former military fort that embraced trading, commerce and the power of nearby Whetstone Falls to spur mill production. It was where Rudyard Kipling settled to write The Jungle Book, and where Harriet Beecher Stowe came to seek the famous 18th century water cure. It’s been home to countless tiny, fascinating episodes of Vermont history — episodes that current residents can now listen to each week on the radio, being described and re-enacted by students from Brattleboro Area Middle School.
This week on the 21st Century Classroom, we bring you a story of how community organizations can partner with students to make history new again, and connect students more strongly to their hometown.
And it begins with longtime Brattleboro resident and radio host Chris Lenois.
Chris Lenois: My name’s Chris Lenois, and I’m the host and producer of Green Mountain Mornings on WKVT 1490 AM.
I happened to walk into the Main Street– the Masonic Center Historical exhibit one day when I was downtown walking around, and it just occurred to me: it’d be great to have a little segment telling people about the history of Brattleboro every now and again. There’s gotta be enough stories here in the town that we could do a radio segment once a week about it. So I emailed the Brattleboro Historical Society about it–they gave me the name of the board president, and I sent him an email about it, we had a short conversation about it, and the next thing you know, Joe Rivers calls me and says,
“Well I’m gonna do this, and I’m a middle school teacher, and I’m gonna have my students do this, and help with the research and the writing, and the recording of it.”
Joe Rivers teaches 7th and 8th grade social studies at Brattleboro Area Middle School. He’s also a trustee with the Brattleboro Historical Society.
Joe Rivers: So when it came to the historical society as a proposal, the question was, “Does anyone wanna try and do this?” and uh, I thought with our students, it would be a fun activity. So that’s how it started.
The radio station contacted the historical society, and it was Chris Lenois’ idea, i think. They came up with it. It’s something that’s been historically, a part of the community, in other decades, and they were trying to reprise it. So when it came to the historical society as a proposal, the question was, “Does anyone wanna try and do this?” and uh, I thought with our students, it would be a fun activity. So that’s how it started.
Joe Rivers: There is a website that’s really helpful for us: ChroniclingAmerica.gov, which has a newspaper that was published in Brattleboro a long time ago, called The Vermont Phoenix, and The Vermont Phoenix was our local paper. So the kids go to Chronicling America and they look for what happened — you can just put in the search engine “January” and “Brattleboro” and click on Vermont Phoenix, and all the newspapers that were published in this date range, seventy or eighty years in the last two centuries, come up. Then the kids go through the process of scanning them looking for what looks interesting to them. That gives us a starting point. And then if it’s a person or if it’s an event, that’s what the kids were saying, that’s when they go online and start looking for what there might be other than that newspaper that gives information about that event or that person.
The one we did this week, one of the students found an article with the headline, “Ex-Slave in Brattleboro Interviewed”, that type of thing. The guy’s name was Jacob Cartledge, and so we started looking up, how many times does he appear in the newspaper, and under what circumstances. At one point he was interviewed, so we put all that together into a show.
Joe Rivers: The kids read and just get a sense of wow, people have very different and strange and interesting lives than what we consider life today. And Jacob Cartledge was an example of that.
But why history on the radio, in particular?
Chris Lenois: Around here, this is our broadcast media. There’s not a television station that covers the Brattleboro area. People in this community still tune into the radio to hear snow cancellations and the weather and things like that; there certainly is the computer element to it as well but radio still plays a very viable role in this community, I feel, and I grew up in this community, so it’s something that has always been near and dear to my heart, the radio.
But for the students, these stories are more than just radio plays. Producing them is providing students with the tools and motivation to dig more deeply into their local landscape. One student, for instance, after being involved with the project for a while–
Joe Rivers: –he lives near a farm and we were just looking through a bunch of old pictures, and he said, “Wait a minute, that’s right next to my mom’s house.” And it turns out that it’s a farm that was the setting of one of, a short story that was written way back in the early 1900s, by someone who became very famous, who I’m forgetting right now. Oh! Lovecraft. And so Lovecraft visited here for a few days, created the genesis of a story, and Eli did all this research about it and learned about — he’d never heard of Lovecraft before — the magazine Weird Tales, the whole thing, about the origins of science fiction. He found out he was intrigued by it, but it was because it was this barn, that was next to his house that he drives by that’s this old decrepit building. And he wound up finding out about himself, and what his interests are, by pursuing the past.
Joe Rivers: When kids get individual satisfaction, that’s great. And when I think that I give them an opportunity to know more about where they’re coming from, I think that’s great. And I give them the opportunity to try to make connections to the community that might not initially be there, because not everyone feels like they initially fit. So Eli’s story about Lovecraft makes the fellow with green hair feel like he fits here. I want people to feel like they’re part of this. Where they can find a place that they can say, yeah, this is home for me too. And there’s a history of a home here for me, and people like me.
Chris Lenois: That’s a challenge for a lot of Brattleboro– or a lot of Vermont towns, right now, right? It’s to try and keep young people connected to their community. So I guess ultimately if that is the legacy of this, keeping young people connected to their community, I’ll take that.
You can listen to the student’s stories by subscribing to the Brattleboro Historical Society’s podcast over on Soundcloud, or tune in each Thursday morning to WKVT 1490 AM, Brattleboro, Vermont.