VA School Librarians Spearhead Historic Community Collaboration

65 trees, each one in memory of a fallen Civil War soldier, are planted at a high school on a historic parcel of land through a collaboration of librarians, teachers, and local and national organizations.
Leesburg, VA, first settled in the 18th century, is just northwest of Washington, DC. Tuscarora High School, where I am a librarian, sits on land that was once used as a Civil War encampment and field hospital. In fact, the site is located along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground (JTHG) route, a National Heritage Scenic Byway. Through the Living Legacy Tree Planting Project, an ambitious program sponsored by the JTHG organization, trees are being planted throughout the area of the route to commemorate the more than 620,000 soldiers who died during the conflict.  Each tree is then geo-tagged with information about the soldier in whose memory it was planted, with that information uploaded to the JTHG website. Our school’s unique location provides many opportunities for educational enrichment and collaboration with local groups. It also lends itself well to our school district’s One to the World initiative. One to the World is an educational approach that encourages students to create products that solve real-world problems for an audience beyond the walls of the school. The Living Legacy Tree Planting program is a good example of a One to the World project.

Librarians lead the way

School librarians have been tasked with facilitating One to the World activities in our district. We contacted the educational director for JTHG, who agreed to collaborate with us and our American history teachers on an instructional unit to research Civil War soldiers who lived or died in our immediate vicinity. The director provided us with access to genealogical and military history databases and put us in touch with the program coordinator for the Living Legacy project. Soon we were working on obtaining the commemorative trees for the specific soldiers we were researching. Since the trees cost $100 each to plant, we assumed that part of the project would include fundraising. Fortuitously, a local community group, the Junior Women’s Club of Loudoun, donated 65 trees to our project as a way of celebrating the 65th anniversary of their organization. They wanted them planted in the vicinity of their headquarters, which happened to be near the school, so it worked out perfectly all around. With the trees serendipitously secured, the next step was to determine where on our 11-acre campus we should plant them. We collaborated with the environmental science teacher who, with her students, surveyed the landscape and worked with a local tree care company to evaluate the soil. Students measured, marked the ground, and made sketches. They decided on the species of trees that would be most likely to thrive, as well as exactly where they should be planted along the ¼ mile-long driveway in order to create the most colorful entrance to our school possible. (Before we could do any digging, though, we had to clear the position of the holes with both the school district’s facilities department and the local utility company.)

All the pieces come together

After months of planning and collaborating, the planting event was scheduled for Saturday, April 30, close to both Arbor Day and Earth Day. As librarian, I became the point of contact and coordinated the community groups and individuals who were involved in the event. I contacted the local newspapers, enlisted the pastor of a nearby church to give a benediction, and invited local elected officials to attend. A program was designed and printed for the dedication ceremony, which was to take place immediately following the planting of the trees in the morning. The sky on the morning of April 30 was heavy and gray, a fitting backdrop for the solemn ceremony which followed the tree planting. The ground was soft from days of rain, making the digging easier. More than 100 people showed up for the event, which concluded with a detachment of the local VFW presenting “To the Colors.” A moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” was played by one of our high school musicians. The community had come together to honor the fallen of our nation; 65 new trees will bear witness to their sacrifice for years to come.

Mind the Three C’s

Throughout this entire process, I discovered that the school librarian can be instrumental to the success of a collaborative project with the wider community. As school leaders and project facilitators, we are in the best position to identify the following essential elements of such a project: Context: To provide relevance, a successful community collaboration project should have meaning for the school within the context of the surrounding area. At our school, the historical importance of the area gave local context and place-based relevance to our project. Other communities may have cultural, geographic, or economic significance that could serve as a contextual basis for instruction. Curriculum: Instructional activities tied to the curriculum ensure desired learning outcomes. In our case, the project addressed specific standards of learning in the areas of American history and environmental science. Other community collaboration projects could include tasks that address standards in subjects ranging from fine arts to economics. The opportunity to apply concepts to real-life scenarios increases engagement, encourages critical thinking, and helps create lifelong learners. Connection: Finding community organizations to collaborate with can help link context to curriculum. Most philanthropic clubs, historical societies, and cultural groups have an inherent interest in supporting the schools in their neighborhoods and often have targeted educational and/or grant programs. The community groups we reached out to were very willing to work with us, establishing a relationship that go beyond this particular project.
Mary Pellicano is a librarian at Tuscarora High School in Leesburg, VA. She has presented at ALA and NCTE and is a trained facilitator for Next Chapter Book Club for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.  

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