2008-07-03 / Schools

Students bring history of 1968 to life

Conduct interviews, create Web site to chronicle 1968

Students Juan Ramos, Tim Bandora, Ravneet Singh and Keith Powell (l-r) interview Kenneth Smutko as part of a project by three classes at the North Brunswick Township High School to chronicle the year 1968. Students Juan Ramos, Tim Bandora, Ravneet Singh and Keith Powell (l-r) interview Kenneth Smutko as part of a project by three classes at the North Brunswick Township High School to chronicle the year 1968. NORTH BRUNSWICK - The Tet Offensive. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The Vietnam War. Space exploration. Rioting at the Democratic Convention. The Olympics in Mexico. The civil rights and women's movements. The Orangeburg Massacre.

The year was 1968, and the United States - and the world - was witnessing numerous political, social and economic events that changed the course of history. This is why three different classes at North Brunswick Township High School have collaborated efforts to create a Web site, www.1968nbt.com, to chronicle the experiences of local residents who lived through that tumultuous year.

"Our goal is to create a permanent record of local history on the Internet," said Sidney Dawson, a history teacher at the high school. "Viewers will be able to download their videos to their computers or iPods to gain a better understanding of history."

The project technically began in January, when Dawson saw a documentary on the History Channel about 1968. He watched Tom Brokaw interview different subjects, "and I thought it was something my students could do," he said.

So, in April, Dawson's U.S. History II students conducted interviews with Lou Ann Benson, director of the North Brunswick Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Services; high school business teacher Ronald Burtnick; Social Studies teacher Peter Conlon; Phyllis Giglio, the mother of a high school employee; high school classroom aide Louise Labos; John Norcia, the father of a high school teacher and the owner of a North Brunswick-based trucking company; Kenneth Smutko, the father of a high school teacher; and high school Assistant Principal and Social Studies Administrator Horace Thorne.

Students from Carol Marks' TV Production Class set up two cameras and filmed the interviews, which ranged from about 20 minutes to an hour. The students tried to maximize their interviewing skills and ask interesting questions, while the interview subjects opened up about their personal lives, society and life at the time in general.

For example, Burtnick spoke about his return from Vietnam.

"There were a whole bunch of people saying 'Support our troops, support our troops,' but their actions didn't. But they were very fast to say 'Support our troops,' " he recalled of being spat at when he returned to the U.S. with his fellow soldiers.

Senior Justin Reager noted Conlon's descriptions of ongoing riots and the use of tear gas on crowds. He said Conlon told how he and a friend jumped over a wall to where a hippie was waiting to flush their eyes out with water. It was as if people were prepared because they knew the police would use forceful measures to disperse crowds.

"It's always more interesting than reading it in a textbook because you lose a lot of emotion. History is all about emotion," he said.

Student Christopher Castillo was impressed by Smutko's interview, especially because he brought out his draft card and explained the story behind it.

"It was part of their lives, so telling us stories helps us prepare for things," Castillo said of the interviews. "Older people are a piece of history, just like how in the future we are going to be questioned by our kids and our kids' kids. We live through it, so it's our history time."

Senior Stephen Romanchik said the video students were sensitive to the personal nature of the interviews, and therefore did not want to cut much of the conversations for content. Instead, they tried to eliminate pauses or awkward moments, and they said it was most difficult to synch up the audio and video components of the interviews.

"We mostly kept all of the questions to keep it more informative about what their experiences were," Romanchik said.

"It's always challenging because when you're filming your own stuff, you know exactly how to edit it because it runs like a film in your head. You have to be careful editing someone else's work because it's what they want," Reager added.

Marks said that directing other students and adults provided a "very valuable" editing experience because the students had to be "well-prepared and professional" during the interviews.

Then, after the initial videos were complete, Burtnick's Web Design students created the Web site, which includes a recap of 1968, the interview videos, life in North Brunswick at the time, and a chance for Web site visitors to tell their own stories. There are also photographs, quotes and other links.

Freshman Ashwin Baweja said he, Alice Huang and Gerson Sanchez worked for 40 minutes in class for two months during the marking period to design and organize the Web site. He said there were "very many" revisions, noting that "getting the Web site to look how it is was easy, but deciding on things was difficult."

"It's important because you can see how it was, life here in 1968," Sanchez said, emphasizing the visual aspect.

Overall, the purpose of the project was to engage students in history via a handson approach, since visual aids can be more effective than just reading from a textbook.

"Historians generally do not sit down and read a textbook; they go out and they talk to people and they hear their stories," Dawson said. "History happens to people, not to fictional characters."

The students learned a variety of lessons. Senior Sharien Rizk said that "combining work with other classes creates memories," and doing it in such a handson fashion "has an impact because you see it, and it sits in your head."

"You get to meet new people and learn interesting things," said junior Evan Kessler, a history student. "You get to see things from a view you hadn't viewed before. … It gives you an explanation of where you came from, and what people did."D

awson said he, himself, learned "to take risks as a teacher and to not give up an idea because it seems a little crazy, and to go through the motions to see if an idea is actually possible."

The Web site is now fully operational, with the videos currently posted on the Internet.

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