Founders’ Day comments focus on a sense of community

Editor”s Note: One of the speakers at Clinton’s recent Founders’ Day event was CJHS teacher Kelby McMath. McMath spoke about becoming a teacher and motivating students to have a sense of community.  The Clinton Journal presents here the text of McMath’s comments as a public service.

“Good afternoon, I would like to start today by thanking the Celebrate Clinton Association for inviting me to speak. It is a true honor to be asked to speak at an event like this that celebrates Clinton’s history and founding. The Association asked me to share why I chose to teach in the community I grew up in and why teachers should teach our younger generations about their community’s history. As a history teacher, I could spend the next several days giving you one hundred reasons, however, I will save that for my 8th grade students.

Becoming a teacher was something I knew I always wanted to do. My mom and dad will tell you they saw “the signs” at an early age.  I vividly remember beginning and ending each school day, and probably some weekends, helping my mom in her classroom with whatever tasks she needed done. This usually included changing behavior charts, turning the computers on or off, or running errands. At home, I was the Guinea pig to test a learning game she’d made to help students with their math facts or an activity to help them understand science.  I think she probably still has the first plaster-of-Paris fossil we made together before making with her class. Although I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, I’m sure experiencing the excitement she had planning ways to help students learn, during my formative years, developed my love of teaching.

As I continued my educational career through junior high and high school, this is really where I developed my love of history.  A teacher that provided an early impact on my love of history was Ms. April Martens. The year I had her we happened to take a family trip to New Orleans.  While browsing through an antique shop I found treasure–civil war bullets. I couldn’t wait to take them back to school to share.  As I continued my education, I tuned into ways teachers made history fun. Alan Thomsen had his “What If?” bell and test theme songs. This is when I finally knew what exactly I wanted to do: teach. What?: history.

After graduating from Western Illinois University in 2013, the job market for a social studies teacher was very competitive. At that point, I had no idea where I would end up teaching, but knew what kind of community I wanted to be in. Somewhere like Clinton is where I had always envisioned wanting to teach. A smaller town where you knew the people you were around, could say hi at the grocery store and somewhere that was good to raise a family. As an opportunity opened up a few weeks before school started, I knew that this was a perfect position to apply for and accepting was the easiest decision I ever made. Being able to teach in the same room that I had social studies in and making a difference in student’s lives is the most fulfilling feeling.

It was also during this time that I was invited to join the Board of Directors at the DeWitt County Museum. This was a true honor as the museum was something dear to my heart as my grandpa Robert had served on the board for many years. It was a family tradition to tour the Homestead during the candlelight tours at Christmas. And, every September, I was eager for the Apple & Pork Festival. I could also be found helping my grandparents bag up ground wheat and corn by the bridge or helping my dad make rope on the front lawn. I saw the joy on my Grandpa Robert’s face as he worked on the hit & miss engines that ran the grinding mill or explaining to a visitor how they were used on the farm. I also saw the fascination on kids’ faces as they watched bailing twine twisted into rope reminiscent of days gone by.

Teaching 8th grade students and serving on the museum board seemed like a natural fit. As I talked with students about the museum each year, however, I was surprised so many said that they did not know we had a museum or that their only connection with it was the Apple n’ Pork festival. I wanted to find ways to bridge that gap and get students involved in the museum as well or at least aware of what it provides our community.

As a teacher, you know the importance of making your subject matter engaging to students. We want to convey the love that we have for our subject matter and be able to share it with students to make learning fun. No matter how long you teach, there is always something you can improve upon to help students learn, so reflecting on lessons is important to instruction. Gone are the days that students needed to memorize what happened in 1066 or what year Manhattan was founded off the top of your head. Instead, having students make relatable connections to their learning is key for their success and retaining the information we teach them. While some students might not remember what year Prohibition began, many do come up years later and can still tell me why Born in the U.S.A. is a protest song.

This way of thinking is found in many of the activities and lessons that 8th grade students learn. In many ways, this is why we started two of the major projects we do each year. When you tell 8th grade students, “We are taking a field trip to a cemetery,” you get some weird looks. This is the way that we start the Good Cemeterian Project each year. The 8th grade teachers were looking for ways to get students involved in the community and to also learn in the process. I started thinking about some potential options, which included something that the students could do to be proud of. If you teach students to take pride in their community, they are much more likely to be involved in the future.

As I was browsing Facebook, I came across a project where students in LeRoy had gone to the local cemetery to clean old graves using a specialized cleaner. I thought, wow, that’s really cool and kind of moved on. After several more weeks, I came across a video that showed a man who goes around and cleans veterans’ graves in his free time. I went on and didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until I was walking around the cemetery one night that I noticed just how dirty the graves in the soldiers’ plot were. The graves of those who fought and died in the Civil War or had gone to live lives after had been forgotten and were in danger of being lost to time. If these men could talk, what stories would they have to tell that helped shape our community into what it is today? By merging these two ideas together, I hoped we could create a really cool project that would allow both learning and community service. Out of this came the Good Cemeterian Project.

For this project, students are each assigned a Civil War veteran that they are tasked with researching and creating a project based upon his life. Students use several online resources to comb through archival records to find out information and then create a multimedia presentation based on his life. Students read obituaries and newspaper articles to get a glimpse into what life was like during much of Clinton’s history. After their projects are done, students take a field trip to the cemetery to then clean off their graves. Students use a combination of water and a cleaner specifically designed for cleaning graves to wash decades worth of grime off, making the markers look brand new. It is encouraging to see how many students have a connection with someone who lived over 100 or even 150 years ago and their sense of caring for their well being.

This project allows students to make a positive impact in their community. Students relate to the people they spend weeks researching and get an idea of what it would be like to walk in their shoes during the time they were all alive. As they share their presentations, they can get a glimpse into what life in Clinton was like as a whole. Students have uncovered information such as Peter Roebuck, who died while waiting on the mail to arrive at the depot. George Lemen, who fought in the Mexican American War and became one of DeWitt County’s earliest settlers. Or James Hall and Benjamin Brown, two friends during the Civil War who died decades apart but then just by chance were buried next to each other in the Soldier’s Plot. These types of stories make the past relatable to students today and help keep Clinton’s history alive to our future generations. Students even share their work with their parents and go “check on” their veteran to see the difference they made. If you have not already done so, I invite you to go over to the Soldier’s Plot and see what the students have done. It is truly remarkable to see the difference they have made in their community.

Similarly, several years ago we received a grant from that allowed the use of their websites and materials for students to use in the classroom. As a result, students started creating a genealogy project based on their family. This project allows students to comb through decades of records both in the U.S. and abroad to research as many generations back as we can. Students then use that research to create a binder including a family tree and biographies about their ancestors. Since students are researching their own family, it gives them a sense of ownership in the material they are learning. The students take an active role in their learning where the teacher merely serves as a facilitator rather than instructor.

As I said before, this type of learning allows students to make meaningful connections to the material and their research gives them a memento of learning. Students have to ask parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents, and other family members for information which helps preserve those memories and family history for years to come. Although I am still waiting on a Jesse Fell or James Allen descendant, we have uncovered some interesting information such as a great x8 grandfather who took in a woman as a young girl. That woman later named her son after the man who took her in. She named her son George, George Washington. These types of connections are what make learning fun for students and what they will carry with them for years to come. It is exciting to see that light bulb go off in each student’s head as they learn something new. The stories that students learn help carry on Clinton’s history to the future generations and preserve them for years to come.

In closing, I would like to go back to the beginning and touch on why I chose to teach in Clinton. It is because of the kids and their families. Being able to have the opportunity to make a difference in a student’s life is why each teacher walks through the doors each day. Additionally, being able to walk into the grocery store or go get ice cream and seeing your former students smiling back is something I greatly enjoy and something you do not get in every community. It is my hope that if students take away only one thing from their education, it is to make a positive impact on those around them.

By having the next generation’s of Clintonians take an active role in their community’s history, this allows them to become the next leaders. The lessons and skills learned in school will help them be productive members of society and ones that have a stake in the future of their community.”