Mars Area students 'create' Mount Rushmore for African-Americans

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Some groups of eighth-graders at Mars Area Middle School thought President Barack Obama should be on Mount Rushmore — if such a monument existed to honor distinguished African-Americans.

As part of Mars Area’s push toward “project-based learning,” nearly 300 eighth-graders used their social studies and language arts classes to research and design a Mount Rushmore-type monument for African-Americans.

“The kids have expressed that they liked doing this. It was nontraditional,” said social studies teacher Jason Thompson.

The project was to commemorate the 2015 opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.

Each group of four or five students chose their honorees from categories including politics, science, sports and cultural icons. Some groups actually constructed models of Mount Rushmore with the new faces, while other groups used photo editing software to superimpose their honorees onto a photo of the real monument.

“The kids did a great job of collaborating,” Mr. Thompson said. “You can tell that they put a lot of time out of the classroom. The students were highly engaged.”

The students made their case for their choices, presenting slide shows to classmates and a panel of teachers, administrators and school board members Thursday and Friday.

A group consisting of Nick Dinderman, Sophia Lamm, Nathan Walker, Paige Schindler and Daniel O’Connell set up their choices as a March Madness bracket, starting out with 20 names before ending up with the “Final Five” of Oprah Winfrey, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, scientist and inventer Benjamin Banneker and Maya Angelou.

Sophia said the idea came about when Nick was thinking about the project while filling out a chart of college basketball teams.

Members of another group showed off their acting ability, by introducing their picks as other characters, then turning the presentation into a game show called “The Fighters of America.”

Jesse Caringola portrayed a friend of Rosa Parks, and talked about why Ms. Parks deserved to be on the monument.

“Rosa spoke her mind. Why shouldn’t we?” she asked.

Another member of that group, Jerome Nacey, portrayed a major-league baseball player who was inspired by Jackie Robinson.

The other picks of that group were Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first African-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

“They inspired. They felt. They made America what it is today, and that is why they should be on this monument,” said Rachel Bobko.

The fourth member of the group, Sophia Avery, was the host of the show.

Other African-Americans who were chosen by groups include Paul Robeson, Dr. Charles Drew, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Harriet Tubman, Muhammed Ali, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington.

“I am so impressed with the preparation and the presentations of the material,” said school board President J. Dayle Ferguson, who served as a judge. “I’m thrilled that our language arts and social studies curriculums are intersecting and coming together in such a creative and informative way.”

Principal Richard Cornell said this is the second year of project-based learning, but the first time the projects crossed curricular lines.

“The thing that’s really nice about the project is the students take on the role of both the teacher as well as the learner,” he said.

This wasn’t the only project being done in the middle school. Mr. Cornell said the science classes were building biomes as if they were designing a zoo, while the computer classes set up and funded a restaurant.

“If you talk to the students, I think they really enjoy this type of learning,” he said. “They do a lot of exciting things.”

Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer:

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