Recently, ninth graders at Forest Hills High School embarked on an ambitious project to tell the story of the 1977 Johnstown Flood. Under the direction of English Language Arts teacher Dr. Aspen Mock, students combined interviews with flood survivors and compelling video storytelling tools to create several video stories telling numerous sides of the flood story.
Now, some of these videos can be seen on the website of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA), who assisted in the research for these projects.
Inspired by her professional development as a National Geographic Certified Educator, Dr. Mock utilized the National Geographic Learning framework to design a project that encouraged students to become explorers not only of their local surroundings, but of the entire region. Through qualitative research, students conducted interviews of survivors from the region, which included family members, friends, faculty and community members.
“Storytelling and passing stories along from generation to generation is the fabric of our culture. The 1977 Johnstown Flood, being a recent contemporary historical event, is a natural disaster that shaped our community and still continues to shape our community today,” said teacher Dr. Aspen Mock. “Through this project, students had the unique opportunity to record stories from their parents, grandparents, friends and faculty in the school. The digital storytelling component allowed them to engage in cultural dialogue about the human journey.”
From these interviews, students were able to draw conclusions about the interactions between the human and natural worlds and tell compelling tales of the human journey through digital storytelling tools such as Adobe Spark.
The video projects represented a unique opportunity for JAHA to work with local students to explore one of the more significant aspects of Johnstown’s history.
“JAHA has explored the 1977 Flood before, through photo exhibits and oral histories,” said JAHA curator Andrew Lang.” But this project brought a whole new dynamic to telling the story of the flood through these compelling video stories.”
To assist students with their projects, Lang brought several artifacts from the flood to Dr. Mock’s Composition classes. The artifacts included newspapers, Pepsi cans filled with drinking water, signs of hope from Wilkes-Barre, and t-shirts with messages from the flood. Students were fascinated, and many of them used photographs of the objects in their digital stories.
Working with local students highlighted what JAHA hopes can be the first of many efforts to work with area schools on local and public history projects.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to work with these classes to explore how history can be used to tell these stories in different ways,” said Lang. “This project is a good example of the kind of work museums do–from conducting first-hand research to selecting different objects and photographs–and these students showed a real knack for it.”
Both Mock and Lang hope that these projects can act as a way to introduce many more people to the events of the flood, as shaped and told by those who lived through it.
Mock discussed how empowering the project was for the students and the community: “Students have been able to preserve many previously untold stories of grace, courage and heroism as cultural artifacts, and retell them through a very powerful visual medium: digital storytelling.”
“By putting these stories online, the story of the flood and how Johnstown came back from it can be shared with a much wider audience.”