In the footsteps of history

Education: Two Harford girls took part in a national program developing leadership skills, learning more about America's heritage - and having fun, too.

October 24, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For Alexandra Dunn, a seventh-grader at Trinity Lutheran School in Joppa, one highlight of her recent participation in the People to People World Leadership Forum was a visit to the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum.

"We saw a 3-D movie, and it was narrated by - who was that guy who narrated it again? Oh, yeah, Tom Cruise," Alexandra said.

More than two weeks after their trip, Alexandra, 11, of Joppa and her classmate Marlena Crowell, 12, of Bel Air were still excited about all they saw and learned in Washington.

The two were among 200 middle-schoolers from around the nation who took part in the weeklong event, part of the People to People Student Ambassador Program that was founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 with the goal of developing leadership qualities in youngsters.

During the forum, which was held from Sept. 27 to Oct. 3, pupils visited museums and monuments in Washington and took bus trips to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, the Gettysburg cemetery in Pennsylvania, and other points of historic interest.

Historical crises

At each location, program leaders discussed relevant American history and prompted the pupils to think about American leadership during times of crisis. Small-group discussions were also held.

Teachers at public and private schools throughout the country were asked to nominate pupils for the weeklong exercise in civic education, which counts as one high school elective. To qualify, pupils must have good grades and be considered leadership material.

To get the credit, the participants had to fill out a preprinted booklet that asks questions and provides space for insights about what they are seeing and experiencing. Marlena and Alexandra also wrote essays about Eisenhower. Marlena focused on the entire presidency, and Alexandra wrote about D-Day.

Beverly Talbot, a social studies teacher at Trinity, said that she selected about six pupils and that of those, Alexandra and Marlena accepted. "I looked at students I thought could really benefit from this program," she said.

Once pupils were nominated, they had to fill out an application and get two recommendations from teachers or other adults.

Some parents were no doubt daunted by the program's $2,000 cost. But pupils who did attend got something substantial for the money, said Talbot, who taught the girls in sixth grade and will teach them again when they are in eighth grade.

"They were walking where the history they will be learning in eighth grade took place," she said, adding that she plans to call on the two girls often in next year's social studies classes.

Trinity Lutheran School is housed in the 131-year-old Trinity Lutheran Church in Joppa and teaches pupils in preschool through eighth grade. Nearly 400 students attend, including about 90 in grades six, seven and eight, said Lisa Waskiewicz, who handles public relations for the school.

New friends

The program represented the girls' first extended trip without family and gave them a chance to make friends from across the country.

They shared a hotel room with Kelsey Waynick of Ohio, and became good friends with Lorena Gullotta of Connecticut, Edward Chrisman of North Carolina and Eli Coplan of California.

Those friendships helped them see American history through different eyes. During their visit to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, they noticed that one friend seemed more upset than others.

"Eli is Jewish," Marlena said. "He just stood there and stared at stuff. He didn't talk much."

Of course, 200 children and their leaders can't simultaneously visit the same museum or eat at the same restaurant. Each bus had its own schedule, and Marlena and Alexandra were lucky to have enough extra time for a trip to a teddy bear factory.

The break was rare, though. The week was crammed with visits to such American institutions as the Library of Congress, Arlington National Cemetery and the Lincoln Memorial.

At the International Spy Museum, they crawled through a ventilator shaft and saw a car driven by James Bond in the movies.

At Colonial Williamsburg, they saw how wigs and candles were made.

Gettysburg visit

During their visit to Gettysburg, they learned about the Civil War and the Cold War. At the battlefield, the girls were struck by how many people had died during the Civil War. Then they visited the farm owned by Eisenhower, and learned about Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev's visit there during the Cold War.

Marlena and Alexandra said the trip gave them new insights into American history. Marlena, who said she watched this year's presidential debates with interest, said she now feels more prepared during discussions of current events in class.

And Alexandra, who said she didn't particularly care about politics before the forum, now concedes that she is interested "a little bit."

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