- Sponsorship -

A life well lived? Students decide

Research unearths lesser known figures of history

What constitutes a life well lived? And who decides whose lives get to be shared as examples of that?

That’s what East Grand Rapids High School teacher Tad VandenBrink wanted his U.S. history students to consider. Over about a four-week period, some 90 students this year came up with their own definition by researching people not found in their textbooks.

The premise of the project, VandenBrink said, was to get his students “to think about who determines the people we study in this class. There’s a lot of people in history who, based on their accomplishments, you could argue deserve to be in textbooks.”

For junior Xanthe Vitaz, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin fit the bill. She was an African American born in Boston in 1842 whom Xanthe found via an online search that began with “women’s rights.” Ruffin was an activist, journalist and published the first African-American women’s magazine.

Characteristics of Ruffin’s life well lived, Xanthe said: “To dedicate yourself to the freedom and equality of others and act on that by helping yourself and those around you, striving to make a difference, and not waiting for change to happen — creating change.”

Sophomore Jack Douse thinks Robert Smalls led a life well lived. The African American who was born into slavery in 1839 became a naval Union hero in the Civil War and later, a U.S. congressman.

Smalls’ characteristics of life well lived, Jack said, are that “he took every chance he had to help others, made a lasting difference in society and persevered through difficult times.”

Junior Daniel Koenen researched George Hearst, a boyhood lead miner and self-made millionaire turned newspaper owner, California senator and philanthropist

How It Works

This was the second year VandenBrink led the Life Well Lived project in his U.S. history classes. He previously led it for two years in his world history class.

Students choose a topic they are curious about. VandenBrink encourages them to start with sources not usually encouraged for school research: Wikipedia and Google.

To find a person to research, he tells them to “just start clicking around and look for names to pop up.” What they are looking for, he said, are names that are not in the class textbook or any of VandenBrink’s review guides.

“That means these are people who, ultimately, we are not going to talk about it in class,” he said. “But they are also people they would be interested in learning more about because they connect to the topic they are interested in.”

Then, like a football draft, there’s a Life Well Lived draft; students choose a few people they want to study, each name goes into the draft once, and students choose one name each.

Junior Nicolas Reuben researched Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the first all-black Army regiment in the Northeast during the Civil War

Lives Overlooked but Worth Studying 

Formulating their definition of a life well lived comes as students research their chosen figure and realize the traits and accomplishments that drew them to learn more. Then, they consider how that lesser-known person’s positive traits align with more well-known figures.

As part of the research project, students submit papers on their chosen person. A classmate provides proofreading and feedback on whether their premise is supported.

As for starting with Wikipedia and Google: “The internet is a resource for these students,” VandenBrink said. “My job is to get them to think differently about using it by thinking about how their positive traits contribute to them being a significant person in history who I can argue lived a life that is worth studying in history class.”

He further explained: “If you’ve got someone like Daniel Boone, who isn’t in the textbook, one definition of a life well lived would be someone who  is adventurous and willing to take risks. So as you talk about that definition of a life well lived, you use what Boone did — blazing a trail to Kentucky — to support that definition. Or bring in Teddy Roosevelt, who also was very adventurous.

“This is the synthesis of taking a lesser known figure and connecting them in an indirect way to see the connection between figures in history.”

- Sponsorship -
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

LATEST ARTICLES

‘Hope on the horizon’ as local teachers start getting COVID-19 vaccine

Lincoln School special education teacher, Ann Post believes there is 'hope on the horizon' for Kent ISD teachers and educators across Kent County after receiving her first round of the COVID-19 vaccine...

Sisters land grant to help those who ‘aren’t as lucky as we are’

Sisters at Page Elementary researched and wrote a grant to help homeless kids at Family Promise of Barry County...

Virtual counseling office offers ‘one-stop’ services

The site offers new ways for students to connect, on anything from academic questions to mental health issues...

Good behavior encouraged at home

For students learning from home, positive behavior rewards are still possible...

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related Articles

Letters to a tribal cousin show understanding of indigenous peoples

Teacher Brett Scheidel has assigned the activity for at least a decade...

‘Soul of Northview’ Says Students Are the Reward

Ted Burba, a longtime and beloved teacher for Northview Public Schools who retired this fall, died early this week after a long illness. In tribute to his lasting legacy, School News Network republishes this profile of Mr. Burba that originally ran in 2016 to honor his 50th year of teaching...

Filmmaker, engineer, future rocket-builder: it’s all about creativity

Xiangyu Chen says his twin passions -- filmmaking and all things science, technology, engineering and math-related -- draw upon similar principles...
- Sponsorship -

HOW'S SCHOOL TODAY?

Engagement: The Most Important Measure of Student Success

Polls find that students’ engagement in their school work declines as they ascend the grades. Tests that don’t relate to their real-life experiences exacerbate the problem...

RADEMACHER & FRIENDS

Food ‘angels’ support hungry kids through pandemic

They work all across Kent County, guardian angels with peanut butter on their hands and crumbs on their shirtsleeves...
- Sponsorship -

MEDIA PARTNERS

Maranda Where You LiveWGVU

SUSTAINING SPONSORS