By McKibben Jackinsky
When Sue Brass, sixth-grade teacher at West Homer Elementary School, assigned her students an assignment to write a narrative essay, she added an additional challenge: the students were to write biographical essays about someone interesting in their families.
“We had everything from the first Pony Express rider to Pocahontas,” said Brass of connections students uncovered in order to complete the assignment. “It’s hysterical, some of the stuff they came up with.”
One student launched a search in Ancestry.com, an online genealogical site with more than 10 billion records and millions of family trees. As a result, the student discovered a connection to a countess that married someone and ended up in Missouri.
Two students, Cameran Baxter and Sean Moran, defined the assignment a bit differently. The school’s librarian, Lisa Whip, provided a connection to former Supreme Court Chief Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Whip’s mother, Anne Zinnser met O’Connor while the two women were law students in Stanford University. Zinnser and O’Connor have maintained a friendship through the years.
Working as a team, Cameran and Sean doubled the assignment by interviewing Whip and getting her perspective of O’Connor and then interviewing Zinnser by telephone.
“First, they had Ms. Whip give them a couple of books and they looked through them for the factual part of O’Connor’s life,” said Michelle Harris, a WHES aide who worked with the two students. “Then they went onto the Internet and did a little research there.”
Reviewing the information they had, Cameran and Sean created a list of interview questions to fill in the blanks.
“They even dressed in white shirts and ties for the occasion of the interview, even though it was over the phone, so they would be in an appropriate mindset to be interviewing someone significant talking about Sandra Day O’Connor,” said Becky Paul, another WHES teacher who helped support the students’ participation in the project.
The impact of the project didn’t start and end with writing. During their research, Cameran and Sean visited iCivics, an Internet site created by O’Connor in 2009 to help young Americans be knowledgeable and engaged citizens. When their class began studying government, the two boys “were so excited. … It was really neat to see them participate in the classroom and be willing to offer information they had learned,” said Harris.
Brass received feedback from parents who thanked her for creating an opportunity to look at family backgrounds.
“The goal was to be able to write about an event and relate it in an essay,” said Brass. “The students got pretty excited about it and it was really fun.”
Following are excerpts from
several of the essays.
Sandra (Day O’Connor) is the first women chief justice for the United States of America. She is also known as the most powerful justice in history. Anne (Zinnser) first met Sandra in law school at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Anne knew her before she became famous. Anne helps Sandra to feel like a regular, ordinary person by being a friend to her. Nowadays they spend time together talking over the phone and even get together for lunch. They enjoy laughing and telling stories about their lives today and their past lives.
— From “Anne’s Friendship to Sandra,”
by Cameran Baxter and Sean Moran
Pocahontas is my thirteenth grandmother removed. She married John Rolfe, and they had one child: Thomas Rolfe. Thomas then married Jane Poythress and their child was Jane Rolfe. Next, Jane married Col. Robert Bolling. That is where the connection is. I believe that my last name — Bolin – is a variation of the last name Bolling.
— From “Pocahontas,” by Clark Bolin
Johnny Fry married into my dad’s side of the family in the 1860s. He was the first messenger of the Pony Express. … His 20 years of life were hard ones, but they were filled with joy. We shall always honor and remember Johnny Fry.
— From “Johnny Fry,” by Marissa Ann Geissler
My grandma served in Desert Storm in 1990-1991. She served as a nurse taking care of our soldiers and the wounded enemies. … She honestly felt like she was going to be killed. … When she came home she realized that it increased her patriotism and made her appreciate her life and family more than ever.
— From “Desert Storm Nurse,” by Lauren Hensley
My grandfather was in the Korean War from 1950 to 1954, even though the war ended in 1953. He saw several ships, planes, helicopters and boats when he served in the war, and was almost attacked on a Korean beach by shelling bombs. … My grandpa was very lucky to come out alive. Hundreds did not survive. They will be missed.
— From “My Grandpa Ben in the Korean War,”
by Katarina Hockema
My grandfather, Frank Hetrick, was in the Vietnam War that lasted 10 years. … These days, my grandfather still has dreams and nightmares, but he still lives through it all now he is a pharmacist at Walgreen’s in Alatucky, Arizona, and living his life.
— From “My Grandfather in the War,” by Brianna Hetrick
My great-grandfather, Andrew Olness, came to the New World from Norway when he was 21. … This adventure shaped his life a lot because he did a ton of different stuff than he grew up with. In a whole different environment, he did very, very well. This brought a new generation to the United States and showed that you can take big risks and have a great life.
— From “Andrew Olness,” by Henry Russell