Students at Coalhurst Elementary School got a first-hand look at the past, a lesson that teacher Emma Lenz figures will serve them well in the future.
The hands-on history lesson came courtesy of the “Coalhurst: Connecting Through Stories” community project. A total of 89 Grade 2 and 3 students interviewed local seniors and toured historic sites in order to put together two magazines.
The assignment meshed with the social studies unit “My Community in the Past” and its goals, including student appreciation of how stories of the past connect individuals to the present. It also met the requirements for a Barons-Eureka-Warner Family and Community Support Services (BEWFCSS) grant to facilitate the development of a stronger community, which in turn made the publishing exercise possible.
Lenz said it’s a challenge to connect seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds to the past in that their history barely extends beyond yesterday.
“For them to think about life before them is an interesting concept,” she said. “We could tell from the questions they were asking of the seniors that it was making them think outside that box. They weren’t just thinking about themselves and their life, they were thinking about what happened in the past and what got me to where I am today.”
In addition to hearing stories of the impact coal mines had on the community’s early existence, the students learned about one-room schools, ancient technology like party-line telephone service and more recent events of note, including the school flood of 2005.
They also heard from Galt Museum technician Kevin MacLean, who advised them on asking the right questions during their interviews. Retired teacher Arlene Purcell, meanwhile, impressed upon them what makes meaningful, memorable stories from her experiences in writing a stage play about the Coalhurst Mine Disaster of 1935, “Firedamp.”
Purcell was among the guests who shared lunch and further memories with the students at a special magazine launch. She said research shows students learn best by doing and asking questions, and the magazine project provided them with a roadmap to make those discoveries on their own.
“They are putting the students in charge and accountable for their own learning and the results are absolutely brilliant,” she said of Lenz and fellow teacher Kerri Desserre. “These children are so engaged and so curious and they are learning so much about critical thinking, asking the right questions and supporting with evidence. It’s quite magical.”
Rowan Desserre was among the students getting their first look at the magazines they contributed to.
“It’s amazing,” said the Grade 3 student, whose interviews included Chuck Wesselman and his time spent working in the mines starting at age 13. “I learned that in the olden days they didn’t have a lot of money and everything we have now would be really cheap. Like for eight hours of work at the mine, it would only be 10 bucks.”
The eight-year-old said it’s important to learn about the past so when she’s grown up she can share those stories with her own children.
That point was not lost on Lawrence Watmough, who spoke earlier to several groups of students about his family’s long history of working the local mines. He told them of his work tending to the horses at the Federal Mine down the road, and showed them photographs and artifacts.
“They’re doing a tremendous job here in the Coalhurst school,” said Watmough. “History needs to be kept going and we have to continue to share it with the next generations.”
Jim Hahn of the Nord-Bridge Seniors Centre helped the school make contact with several of the interview subjects and was impressed by the efforts made to bridge the generational gap.
“There is so much for children to learn by interactions with others and seniors learn so much from them as well,” he said.
Lenz commented on the lack of written history available on many smaller communities, which made their project even more special.
“It’s neat for the kids to be connected to Coalhurst history – not to Alberta history or to Canadian history – but to Coalhurst history,” she said, adding praise to the BEWFCSS for its support, but also all the editing work put into the magazine by practicum student Susan Maas.