What began as a qualitative research project on the connection between authentic learning and student engagement quickly grew to have a life of its own. I conceived of this project while conducting research for my dissertation in educational leadership through the Minnesota State University of Moorhead. Authentic learning can take many forms, but essentially, it is any project that gives students a real purpose and a real audience for their writing that is not just a classroom exercise, but has real-world application. The students in my College Writing class in Park Rapids, Minnesota paired up with local military veterans to do an oral history project. The students and Veterans participated in the Veterans History Project, which is a national project that collects individual Veterans’ stories, and archives them through the Library of Congress. The local coffee shop in town, Bella Caffe, graciously allowed the students to conduct the interviews on site. After the interviews were conducted, the students then did some further research in order to write up a fully-detailed biographical essay. These biographies went through multiple drafts in order to become of publishable quality.
All of this was part of the original research plan. However, as the project progressed, it grew to have a life of its own. The chair of the All-Veterans Memorial in Park Rapids contacted me to invite the class to the museum. Upon arrival, the students and I were pleased to find several local Veterans in attendance. The Veterans regaled the students with war stories of rats, rations, and rain, while the students listened in fascination. It was a surreal experience. I was then invited to share the results of this project at the Hubbard County’s Disabled American Veterans Christmas party.
Prior to the start of the research project, I reached out to the Minnesota Humanities Center to see if they would be interested in partnering with me on this project. I’m happy to say they provided funding for the flash drives for the interviews to be sent to the Library of Congress, allowing me to attend a poetry reading and Veterans event at MHC by Veteran and poet Jessi Atherton, for a bus ride to the Park Rapids All-Veterans Memorial, and for the publication of the anthology of these stories. The students brainstormed titles and voted on the one they liked best: The Untold Stories of American Veterans. One of the students is designing the cover. At the end of the project, I hosted an appreciation breakfast with coffee and rolls for the students and Veterans. The students read aloud their biographies, and gave a copy to the Veterans, along with a personal thank you note.
After the final drafts were in, I conducted an exit survey. Out of the 24 student participants, 100% felt fully engaged and rewarded by doing this project. These are just a few of the comments made by the students:
“I felt rewarded writing this paper. Knowing how much it meant to my veteran was what kept me so committed to it. My veteran said doing these kinds of things helps veterans deal with the hard parts of service and acts as a way to just let it all out.”
“I feel really good about this project and I find it really cool all the new things everyone of us has learned about war and veterans. I feel like this makes us take a new look at the world and makes us open our eyes to see what other humans do for us that we could never imagine doing ourselves.”
“I learned about the hardships in war but also the good things you get from it. Everyone things war is just death and bad, but I learned you can visit wonderful places. You also meet great people and build wonderful friendships.”
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By: Tanya Miller
Tanya Miller is a high school English teacher at Park Rapids High School, and is also a doctoral candidate at MN State University Moorhead.