Monday, April 30, 2012

The Titanic Fanatic and Ellis Enthusiast

Lately, I was reminded of two topics that were something of an obsession for me when I was younger. Like so many teachers I know, I was something of a nerd, especially for history, art and culture.  This was abundantly apparent in the middle grades when popular opinion leaned more toward surfing (in suburban PA?  I don't get it either...) and collecting Beanie Babies and pogs.

My elementary teachers used to send home those tissue-thin book order forms from Scholastic, at which point I would immediately begin begging my mom for the Thundercats Sticker Book or Lisa Frank Stationary Kit. On the rare occasion that she would let me get something, it was never of the sticker or colored pencil variety - it was always a book.

From these very book orders, I got two books that fueled a voracious appetite for two specific topics - the Titanic and Ellis Island. The first book was a softcover full-color account of Robert Ballard's discovery of the sunken vessel and I was immediately transfixed. Within months, I had at least ten other books on the subject and my nana and I had watched "A Night to Remember" at least three times. (This was long before the James Cameron film on the subject. I was incredibly excited about the attention to detail in the making of the film, then horribly disappointed by the plot.)

My interest in history and culture was certainly inherited from my mom, so naturally the other book she picked from the catalog was about Ellis Island. Once again, about a year later, a new obsession was forged. Countless books and PBS specials from the library later, we received a flyer for Haverford Township's summer trips series and, lo and behold, there was a bus trip to New York to tour Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. In a nutshell, I made my mom ride for three hours on a charter bus despite her motion sickness, then pouted when we had to leave Ellis Island to go to the Statue of Liberty.

My point for rehashing all of these childhood memories is that these passions in our lives as educators can make for some real expertise and enthusiasm in instruction.  This year marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and with these anniversaries come countless opportunities to teach about them.  Even though it did not directly fit into the curriculum, the kids had lots of questions about the disaster as a result of the media buzz and rerelease of the 1997 film.  I told them about my interest when I was their age and at least a few checked Titanic-themed books out from the library.

When I checked my email this morning, I found that Scholastic Publishers themselves, makers of the book order forms that started it all, have launched a virtual Ellis Island exhibit on their site.  They have a virtual tour, as well as tons of images, graphs and infographics about the immigration site.  I was excited to see the feature, yet disappointed that there was no foreseeable way for me to fit this into my current classes.  So, I just shared it with my colleagues in the social studies department and hoped that it would be of use to them.

Obviously, most of my students will not become avid enthusiasts of any of the topics that inspired me as a youth, but I hope that something we cover this year inspires them to become experts on their own.  There is no better way to read and research than to do so about a topic that fascinates you.  All I can hope to do is to cover enough diverse subject matter - from rocks to physics and ancient mythology to apartheid -  in my three courses that I can light that spark in at least a few kids.

Until then, I will be taking a virtual tour of Ellis Island online and hoping to convince my family to trek back there again this summer...


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