Thurston Middle School students learn how different, yet familiar, life was through oral history interviews

Months of hard work culminated in a scene worthy of significant dignitaries Monday at Thurston Middle School.

Ninety sixth-grade students had one minute to share anecdotes and wisdom from people they interviewed as part of a 37-year-tradition at the Laguna Beach school — oral history projects.

About 250 parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors filled Thurston’s gym to listen to the first of three days of speeches. Students lined up next to each other, waiting for their turn at the podium.

Most students spoke of grandmothers and grandfathers, neighbors and friends, all of whom must be at least 50 years older than they.

Aden Cattan, 12, said he heard about the oral history project last year when he graduated fifth grade. He had the ideal person in mind — his grandmother Kate Zane-Ellis.

“She never gave up, no matter what happened,” Aden said in an interview following his speech.

“I had a lot of challenges in my young life, I was a widow at a young age [with two children to raise],” said Zane-Ellis, who took her first flight in 27 years from her home in Amherst, N.H., to watch her grandson give his speech.

Students started the project in December when they conducted interviews. They had a list of questions to ask and recorded the interview.

Classes watched interviews online to gather tips on extracting more information and asking follow-up questions, said Sarah Schaeffer, project coordinator and Thurston teacher.

In the ensuing months, students created a news article about a significant historical event that occurred during the life of their interviewee, and wrote poems and biographical narratives of their selected person.

“The kids get so much out of it,” Schaeffer said. “They’ll say, ‘I thought I knew everything there was to know [about the person]. They learn how different life was, but also recognize the similarities. They were a kid too."

A common takeaway among several speakers was technology’s grasp on society with instant access to information on smartphones and computers.

Zane-Ellis chose the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as the historical moment that stands out most for her.

“It meant a great deal to my grandson to learn that history,” she said. “It was a huge impact. It was a depressed time for society."

At the end of each speech, students asked their interviewee to stand, which elicited rounds of applause.

A sampling of the advice students relayed from their interviews included: It’s important to take risks in life; find a partner who loves you and can accompany you in hard times; and the key to living a happy life is to be truthful to everyone.

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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