Journey through the past: Bensley fourth graders seek to record neighborhood’s history

At Bensley Elementary School, a group of fourth graders are on a mission to investigate and document their neighborhood’s rich history.

Teachers Maria MacLaughlin and Dawn Henderson are leading the 17 children who volunteered to work after school on the living history project. The project involves taping interviews with Bensley residents, which will be edited into a Bensley history on tape, and creating a book with photos and information about the neighborhood, MacLaughlin said.

“I think it’s just a really great thing, and I think the children have enjoyed it,” she said.

Henderson said two students are always involved in the interviews – one student asks the questions and another films the interview, which usually takes 15 to 20 minutes. All of the students involved in the project have had the chance to film or conduct an interview, she said, and about 25 community members have been interviewed so far.

On a recent afternoon, Teonna Woodberry, 10, sat down with Rene Eldred, a longtime Bensley resident, to talk about the neighborhood’s history and Eldred’s experience living there. Jared Leath, 10, filmed the exchange with a Flip Video Camcorder, switching to different camera angles and vantage points throughout the interview.

The students learn manners, interviewing skills and poise during the sessions, MacLaughlin said, as well as history. The interviews help foster appreciation for the area and respect for the people sharing the information, she said.

“I think the great thing, though, is the technology piece,” she said, since the students film and edit the footage of the interviews.

Teonna listened intently as Eldred answered questions about what she did for fun growing up, whether the fire station has always looked like it does now – it hasn’t – and what her first car was – an American Motors Gremlin.

“It was one of those things which just would not die, and you couldn’t get rid of it,” Eldred said.

Near the end of the interview, Teonna asked Eldred to share a story about living or working in Bensley.

“I can tell you how my house is haunted,” Eldred said. “We actually have a ghost in our house.”

When the family moved in, she said, they got a note saying that the original owner – Mrs. Willis – visited the house from time to time. Eldred never had to rock her son’s cradle – it would seem to rock on its own, she said.

After the interview, Jared said he’d never used a Flip camera before starting the project, but it’s become his favorite task. Using it “is really arm-working,” he said, but “it’s really nice just to hold the camera.”

“What I think is really important to us is that we get to learn what’s more in Bensley,” he said. “We get to ask people how they lived here and what the school looked like before.”

Being in front of the camera as the interviewer is no problem for Teonna, she said.

“I find that all these questions are interesting,” she said, but her favorite is asking interviewees to share a story about living or working in the neighborhood.

“I like to hear the information about Bensley neighborhood, and go back and tell people about Bensley neighborhood and tell people why it’s important.”

Eldred said she was involved in the Bensley neighborhood’s 100th anniversary celebration in August 2009, and during that time she learned what Henderson was trying to do with the students.

“I think any area should know its history and any child should know its heritage,” she said. “If you don’t know where you come from, you’re losing out on your past. Plus, we have a lot of history here.”

As the students worked on the project’s book component, Jaden Campbell, 10, said the book would contain pictures of students interviewing people, as well as stories about the neighborhood. Campbell, who is new to Bensley, said he likes interviewing people he doesn’t know.

“It’s fun when you get to learn new stuff,” he said.

During the interviews, 9-year-old Summer Rowe said, “we get to learn the stuff that other people already know.” Summer’s learned several facts that stand out, including that Bensley got its name from one of the original landowners in the area, which was originally mostly farmland.

Learning about Bensley is important because, “when we get older, we know about the neighborhood and what happened, and we can tell other people,” said Noemi Acosta, 9.

But the students won’t just be rewarded in knowledge, MacLaughlin said. They will receive T-shirts so they can be recognized in the community for their work, she said. And, Henderson said, the goal is to get the book and history video in the county’s libraries and historical sites.

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