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Laurie Capponi


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What began several years ago as an end to a Holocaust unit and a complement to a field trip to Washington, D.C., has become a focal point of Laurie Capponi's English classes at Wellwood Middle School in Fayetteville, New York.

Fred Rogers Memorial Soundstage

During that D.C. trip, Capponi's students focused on national memorials; they responded so well to the activity that, when they returned, Capponi asked them to select a new person, group, or event to research and memorialize -- and the Memorial Project was born!

"The project changes a bit each year," Capponi told Education World. "I added more activities for the next few years and created the Web site during the third year, but the central activities still are to select and research a person, group, or event worthy of memorialization; become an expert on the topic through research; build a 3-D, symbolic memorial; and present all the information and the memorial to the class in a formal speech, which is given right before Memorial Day weekend,".

"In our school, we have two eighth grade teams of about a hundred students each," Capponi said. "Originally, only my students did the project, but three years ago, a new English teacher became very excited about the project. Now it is a grade-wide event."

Jim Henson Memorial Stage

After the events of September 11, 2001, a variety of concerns caused Capponi's district to change the location of the eighth grade field trip. Today, a video presentation examining presidential memorials substitutes for an actual field trip as preparation for the project. Classes also sometimes reads the novel Whirligig by Paul Fleischman, a book that tells the story of a young man who causes the death of a girl through drunk driving. His punishment, given by the girl's mother, is to construct whirligigs in her memory in the four corners of the United States. Capponi's students connect the themes in that book with their memorial activities. This year, she chose two celebrities who had recently passed away and sponsored a memorial design contest to help students hone their skills before designing their original memorials.

"The most memorable projects have been done by students who had some special connection to their topics," reported Capponi. "One boy did a memorial to breast cancer victims; his mother was a survivor. One girl memorialized the plane crash in which her uncle died. Several students knew the families of two local fire fighters who died a few years ago."

For Capponi, however, the most moving project was completed by a student who actually created two memorials.

"During her speech, she said she had rejected her first choice in favor of a safer topic, but during the unit, she realized she had made a mistake," Capponi recalled. "It dawned on her the evening before her speech that the topic she should have stuck with -- the person who really deserved a memorial -- was her friend's little sister who had lost the fight against leukemia. So, after presenting her official memorial, she brought out the one she had stayed up all night to make for that little child. She explained tearfully to the class that she hadn't wanted to deal with the child's death and hadn't really been there for her friend, but she planned to give her the memorial. I felt that she truly had reflected upon, and had come to understand, the value of remembrance in a way few adults ever do."

Martha Graham Memorial Dance Studio

It amazes Capponi that her students rise to the occasion each May and create wonderful projects, at a time when improving weather, romance, and other distractions are at their peak. She believes that students channel their excess energy and excitement at the end of the year and put it into their memorials.

"When they dress up and give their speeches, with even the most shy students pulling it off, I tear up because I know they truly are ready to move on to high school," said Capponi. "I think they feel it, too, and take great pride in their work."

The project is large, and takes students about a month to complete. It also requires support from the library -- time to work, instruction in citation and research, and -- in the case of Capponi's students -- a shelf on which to display the 3-D memorials. The principal also stops in to listen to a few speeches and makes time to examine the projects and chat with the students.

Princess Diana Memorial Children's Clinic

"I learned to just step back and let the kids do the work," Capponi stated. "In the beginning, I had a tendency to do too much helping. I felt that I was building 90 memorials and writing 90 research papers. That is an exhausting way to spend the month of May! Fortunately, I've found that students do better and are more creative when I force myself to walk away and give them the elbow room to dive in on their own. Without my micromanaging, they usually do not disappoint, and they often truly surprise and impress me. I suppose that's a lesson every teacher (and parent) must learn at some point, but for me, it took a lot of practice to master!"

Capponi's memorial project is famous in the school. Parents and students know about it from viewing projects on display. Students often tell her that as fifth and sixth graders, they looked forward to reaching eighth grade and becoming a part of it.

"The students really seem to enjoy the creation of the memorials and they take it very seriously, sharing their designs, ideas, and progress with their friends and with me," observed Capponi. "They are not as delighted to write the paper, and many are a bit intimidated by the speech, but I always tell them that it's a rite of passage as they leave middle school and enter high school. And almost without exception, I get high-school quality work."

Photos provided by Laurie Capponi.

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If you're a teacher who has completed an interesting or unusual activity with your class -- or if you know of a teacher who has -- please let us know about it. E-mail a brief description of the activity, along with your contact information, to [email protected].

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

08/11/2006