What’s it like to examine your own personal history as you live through historic times? High school students at The Ellis School, an independent school in Pittsburgh, found out as they completed a virtual learning archive project to culminate their grade 11 American Literature class. Inspired by the book Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, the virtual classroom project tasked students with creating an archive of their own, complete with sentimental items and belongings, much like the characters in the award-winning novel. A fitting and timely project for the class as they live through historic times in the present, this look-back at the events and items that shaped their pre-pandemic lives proved to be particularly relevant and impactful.
“We’re living virtually in so many different ways right now,” shared Dr. Anna Redcay, English Department Chair and American Literature teacher. “Forcing them to consider the objects, the sounds, and the things that carry importance and significance in their lives can be really powerful. I wanted them to think about the physical space around them at this moment—sometimes it can feel very limiting—but really we’re surrounded by a wealth of ideas and experiences even in small spaces.”
The high school class’ virtual archives included a range of items: sound recordings, photographs, pictures of meaningful books, movies, and album covers, digital clippings from contemporary and historical newspapers, and objects that represented significant “souvenirs” of their own American story. Their literary analyses, chosen quotations, and presentations explained the significance behind their archives while harkening back to the novelists they studied who also used symbolism to shape narratives and reinforce deeper meanings.
For one student, creating an archive seemed difficult at first as she wasn’t someone who chose to keep objects as memories, although the project quickly changed her mind. After discovering a box of memorabilia and old photos, she found items that were deeply sentimental from the day of her birth. She found the hospital bracelet her mother wore, and a newspaper from her birth date in March 2003 with a headline about an infectious outbreak, an eerie reminder that one’s past and present stories can be connected in ways that are impossible to foresee. She used the items to trace the idea of an "inventory of echoes" or of things repeating over time, a theme from Lost Children Archive.
Throughout the arc of the English program, Ellis School teachers are continuously helping students understand that what they're learning about is not isolated to one novel, text, or poem. But they are all connected by a larger thread, in this class’ case the American story, and should be considered as one part of a whole as they analyze, gather textual evidence, and form a conclusion.
“We’re always challenging students to think about the deeper meaning” said Dr. Redcay. “The goal is for them to be able to make text-to-self connections and text-to-text connections. When you bring together secondary resources and think collectively about how and why a story is told, you can understand how literature is part of larger narratives of race, biology, technology, and more. By making them put the ideas together themselves in this archive project, I hope they can see themselves in the broader American narrative that much more.”
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