Students make history in Weston, Wis.

The livelihoods of cash-strapped schools and youth programs routinely depend on fleets of small salespeople—youngsters turned loose door-to-door—who are obliged to peddle everything from gift wrap to cookie dough to magazine subscriptions. I’m happy to support these budding artists and future leaders in my neighborhood, honestly I am, but sometimes it seems there’s a disconnect between a program’s mission and its merchandise.

Not so in the case of D.C. Everest School in Weston, Wis.,  where an innovative project sustains itself through book sales. “You won’t find a program like ours anywhere in the country,” Paul Aleckson, the project coordinator, recently told me.

Selling books might not seem all that original, but at D.C. Everest, students sell the books they’ve created. For eighth and tenth grade honors students, collecting local oral histories is built into units of study that have included the Great Depression, Hmong culture and Wisconsin veterans. A current project on the Holocaust had students reading and discussing Doris Bergin’s War and Genocide and traveling to the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Ill., before they interviewed area Holocaust survivors.

Students at D.C. Everest School display books they helped produce through the school's oral history program. Photo: Paul Aleckson.

After transcribing the interviews, obtaining consent forms, writing brief bios of interviewees and collecting their photos, students submit their work to the school’s extracurricular Oral History Club. The club takes on all the publishing responsibilities for the project, such as layout, editing and proofreading. “The kids are so independent,” Aleckson says. “They show up and just work, work, work.” His own enthusiasm for the students and their work comes across loud, clear and heartfelt.

According to Aleckson, the final products regularly exceed people’s expectations of middle and high school students. “We get some pretty unbelievable pictures that you won’t find anywhere but in our books,” he added. “If you’re studying World War II, for example, you’ll want to get our books because they’re primary sources.”

Each book project takes three years to complete and costs about $10,000, and though the project has received grant support from funders like the Wisconsin Humanities Council, it remains largely self-financed through its book sales.  To date, the group has published 18 of them, and most are available for purchase from the project’s website. Aleckson–whose passion clearly lies in the student learning experience–admitted that marketing the books has been his greatest challenge.

Students from the oral history club read their collection of Hmong folk tales to an elementary class. Photo: Paul Aleckson.

Aleckson won the VFW National Citizenship Education Teacher Award in 2002. And last year, the American Historical Association selected the D.C. Everest Oral History Project as the recipient of its prestigious Albert Beveridge K-12 Teaching Award.

The club’s not resting on past achievements, though. “We’ve got two exciting projects coming up–our Holocaust project and a new book on Wisconsin women–and they’re both going great guns right now,” said Aleckson.

–Tammy Kempfert

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