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February 13, 2003

Unearthing treasures in our neighborhoods

From: Hampshire Gazette, MA - 13 Feb 2003

By RYAN DAVIS, Staff Writer

Thursday, February 13, 2003 -- NORTHAMPTON - Students at Clarke School for the Deaf come from all over the world, but now many of them know more about western Massachusetts than some people who have lived here for years.

A six-week unit called "Discover the Treasures in Your Own Backyard" exposed students to such famous local residents as Calvin Coolidge and Sylvester Graham, taught them about local plants and the Northampton restaurant scene, and included field trips to the Eric Carle Museum, Historic Deerfield and several other places.

The unit concluded Tuesday when students presented projects to dozens of fellow students, parents and teachers. Many of the students, ranging in age from 7 to 15, dressed as the persons they had researched, while others gave out food or answered questions about local history.

All the projects incorporated what students were learning in their regular classes. For instance, science topics included the cell structure of local plants, and math classes crunched the numbers for a penny drive to raise money for local homeless shelters and the Sojourner Truth statue in Florence.

"We try to make it more interesting and exciting for the kids during the cold winter," said lower school teacher Bryan Olson, one of the co-coordinators of the unit. He was dressed as The Cat in the Hat.

Anita Diemand, a lower school teacher and also a co-coordinator, said the unit is as enjoyable for teachers as for students. "The more were learn as we're doing it, the more fun we have," she said.

Clarke School Director Pamela Paskowitz said that in addition to teaching local history, the six-week winter unit, which in the past has focused on ancient civilizations and westward expansion, gives deaf students an opportunity to work on their oral communication skills.

"When you come to a school for the deaf and its so loud you can't hear yourself, you know the communication is good," she said as students enthusiastically explained their work to visitors.

Grady Congleton, 13, from Groton, did a project about plants found on the Clarke School campus. He had set up a microscope for other students to look at a branch of a Colorado blue spruce.

"We looked at the cells under the microscope," he said. "I learned that cells can be many different shapes and sizes."

Some students in Olson's class toured several city restaurants to learn about different national cuisines. They then videotaped restaurant reviews and made a food wheel that illustrated the nutrition values of food served in such places as Moshi Moshi and Pinocchio Pizzeria.

Several projects focused on slavery and the Underground Railroad, which ran through Northampton.

Destiny Jackson, 12, of Springfield, dressed as Sojourner Truth in a long dress and shawl, said Truth is a role model. "She is strong and she believed in herself," she said. "She had a lot of energy for what she feels."

Vanessa Bacellar, 12, of Brazil, who did her project on the Underground Railroad, said she was surprised to learn about the conditions the slaves sought to escape.

"When babies were born, the babies were not free," she said. "When they were 3 years old, they had to work."

A group of students produced a multimedia presentation about Calvin and Grace Coolidge. Apart from serving as president and first lady, the Coolidges were major fund raisers for Clarke School, where Grace was a teacher. The couple met on the school's campus.

Clarke and its place in Northampton were the topic of several events during the unit, including a day when four former teachers visited to tell of life at the school in the past. Diemand said the students "just loved" learning about how Clarke students lived decades ago.

Ryan Davis can be reached at