George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Logging History: Students as Archivists

The Montana Heritage Project helps the youth of a lumber-mill community preserve connections to its past.

August 5, 2003
Photo Credit: Montana Heritage Project
Libby in 1910.

Libby, Montana, has been tied to the timber industry for more than a century. Reminders of lumber's importance are everywhere, from the smile on each year's Logger Days Queen to the shine on the flagpole-high axe sculpture in front of the high school.

It was a blow to the whole community when the Stimson Lumber Mill, the town's largest single employer, closed down in January 2003. A way of life was vanishing, and a huge chunk of the rural town's history might have left town with the mill workers.

Thanks to Libby High School students, though, that vanishing way of life -- and its role in the community -- was not only preserved, but celebrated.

A Vanishing Way of Life

Since 1995, Libby's students have been involved in the Montana Heritage Project, an organization with a strong online presence that works throughout Montana to spread project-based, community-centered models of education. English and history classes use the Heritage model, discarding textbooks, and teaching through the lens of local history. At the end of the year, students invite community members to a Heritage Night, where they present what they've learned about the town's cultural heritage.

In Libby, where local history and logging are synonymous, Heritage classes have been exploring aspects of the town's logging industry for eight years. To better understand logging's place in Libby, and Libby's place in the world, they have collected historic photos and stories, interviewing former and present mill workers at their homes and on the job. "It was very intriguing to actually see these people at work," says student Brad Mohr. "When they're at work, they're the most honest with you, I think, because they don't think about [being interviewed] as they're standing there next to the machine." Because of this hands-on research, the 2003 Heritage class was able to respond to the mill closing by giving workers a record of their importance in the community.
View slide show: Students Preserve A Vanishing Way of Life.

The Heritage Project inspired the Libby community to transform a run-down gym into this Memorial Center.

Credit: Montana Heritage Project

Cause for Optimism

At the 2003 Heritage Night, a successful community-school collaboration provided an optimistic counterpoint to the mill closure. The building where the event was held, a performing arts center, was once one of six run-down school gyms. In 1995, community member Paul Rumelhart got involved with students in the first Heritage Project and heard their complaint that the town had no place dedicated to the arts. Enlisting community support, he worked nine years to renovate the center, and on Heritage Night he dedicated it to the students.

Rumelhart said that programs like the Heritage Project need to continue in order to teach children to be strong community members: "The two most important things, according to [Professor] Richard Florida ... are culture and education. Why is it the two most important things that are going to pull us out of the economic doldrums that we're in we cut first? Beats the hell out of me. But what you find in strong communities such as Libby is, we pick up that slack as a community."

A Broadening Experience

The Heritage Project also exposes students to the world beyond Libby. Yearly conferences in Helena and trips to Washington, DC, give students a broader sense of perspective. Charlie Croucher, former foreman of the Stimson Lumber Mill, recalls seeing this in Heritage classes that visited the mill. "It took me thirty years to get that sense of history about tying in your little place with the world. It was so exciting to see that in these kids. They already had it."

Croucher's daughter Delila visited Washington, D.C., with her Heritage class and was asked to submit the logging stories she wrote (based on her father's memories) to the Library of Congress archives. Amanda Shotzberger, a senior in the class of 2003, had a similar experience. For the Heritage Project, she wrote a paper on Libby black sheep John H. Geiger. The paper came to the attention of the Montana Historical Society, and she has been invited to read it this year at their "Jerks in Montana History" conference, a lighthearted look at the not-so-illustrious figures in Montana's past.

James Billington talks with a group of Heritage students.

Credit: Montana Heritage Project

Project Origin

The idea for the Heritage Project, established in 1995, came out of a discussion between philanthropist Art Ortenberg and Librarian of Congress James Billington. Ortenberg, who has a ranch in Montana, was concerned about the lack of interest in education and in community he observed in students there. The two agreed that by using the finances of the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation (LCAOF) and the resources of the Library of Congress, they could develop a program for Montana.

The Library of Congress has an extensive site of its own called American Memory, an online "gateway to primary sources" that allows students to explore national history using folk songs, oral history recordings, and primary documents. For a Montana-focused program, it was agreed that a Montana-based educator was needed as a leader. Michael L. Umphrey, a former high school principal, was chosen on the strength of his ideas about community-based education. Michael Umphrey: Five Steps to Community-Based Education [download PDF (52KB)] Working with the Library of Congress, he developed the essential elements of the project.

A Libby Heritage student walks community members through the phases of her project.

Credit: Montana Heritage Project

The ALERT Model

Projects for the year vary, but the learning model used by students does not. Designed to guide students through five common stages of learning, it is called the ALERT model: Ask, Listen, Explore, Reflect, and Transform (or Tell).

In the "Ask" phase, students develop an essential question, such as, "How did World War II affect women in Townsend?" (The Heritage Project partners with the Library of Congress Veterans History Project to interview Montana war veterans.) In the "Listen" phase, they collect information from various sources in the community. They then follow, or "Explore," the different paths suggested by this information.

The "Reflect" stage is essential for building understanding. Student Kyle Koehler of Libby, for instance, noticed during his research that in historic issues of the local paper, there was often very little local news. Even on the day of the town's fierce 1910 fire, the front page news was of the big cities. In reflection, he put this puzzle together with what he had learned about Libby at this time. He realized that this was a mark of Libby's small size and isolation -- everyone in town already knew about the fire. They wanted to know what was happening in the faraway capital.

Students use the "Tell" stage to put together a final product, often using digital photography, PowerPoint presentations, desktop publishing, and the Heritage Project site to share their work with others.

At the yearly student conference in Helena, students and teachers from across Montana gather to share their work.

Credit: Montana Heritage Project

Bringing Students Together

In Montana, the nearest school is often more than a hundred miles away. The virtual element of the Project allows schools to see what other classes are doing by accessing their Heritage Project Web sites, hosted by the American Memory-affiliated site. Students also come together in person. One of the traditions of the program is the student conference held every year in Helena. The participating communities present projects to each other and meet with historians. A winning town is chosen and delegates from that community go to Washington, DC, to present their projects to James Billington.

A Heritage student examines the globe outside Librarian of Congress James Billington's office in Washington, DC.

Credit: Montana Heritage Project

Supporting Teachers

The Project offers a wide range of online resources for teachers who are new to project-based teaching. There are rubrics and tools, as well as Heritage Teaching newsletters. Another professional development feature of the program is the Summer Institute. Teacher Bob Malyevac, of Libby, says, "The summer is a weeklong workshop. We always address some aspect of getting better at what we're doing. We finish the year by writing down goals for the next year; we start the summer by creating a proposal for the coming year and getting it approved."

Nancy Widdicombe's Heritage class in Harlowton, Montana, interviewed nearby Hutterite colonies to create this book.

Credit: cover art by Betsy Suckow

Learning from the Community, Sharing with the Community

In researching projects, students ask questions of the community. One of the ways in which they thank the community is by producing a final product from their work and presenting that product to the community. Nancy Widdicombe's class in Harlowton, Montana, spent a year interviewing the Hutterite colonies that surround their area and then produced a detailed book, The Hutterian Way of Life. Students visited the religious colonies to ask about everything from the role of women in the Hutterite religion to the colonies' traditional foods. Hutterites are similar to the Amish in that they want little to do with the modern world, schooling their children themselves and rarely making appearances in town. This makes it all the more remarkable that the students were able to document Hutterite life with digital photography, and that several Hutterites came to the final Heritage Night presentation.

The Project in the Classroom

Jeff Gruber, a Libby Heritage Project teacher since 1995, has seen the program evolve in his own classroom. Based on his experience, he gives practical advice on integrating the Heritage Project model into a class, and on avoiding common stumbling blocks. Jeff Gruber: Heritage Project Guidelines [download PDF (60KB)]

Students Speak Out

"What you do and learn really means something to you and others around you," Taylor, a student in Gruber's class, says of working on the Heritage Project. Classmate Anders agrees. "It really has opened my eyes and let me see what we once were, and what we could potentially be."

Ashley Ball is a former staff writer at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. She has written for Classroom Connect’s Quest program and Grolier Books’ Questions Kids Ask series. Ms. Ball also contributed to the Teachers A-Z Resource Guides published by Discovery Channel School.

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  • 9-12 High School

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