Ken Burns’ ‘The Address’ Is an Inspiring Look at an Unusual School Exercise

By Mark Walsh — April 11, 2014 4 min read
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You know you’re watching a Ken Burns documentary when you hear subdued piano chords and see a black-and-white photograph of a battlefield.

That’s how “The Address” begins, with sounds and images that evoke Burns’ classic, “The Civil War.” But we know this new film is different when instead of the sonorous voice of the 1990 documentary’s narrator, David McCullough, we hear a young person who seems to be struggling a bit to get the words out.

The voice describes how President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg, Pa., in November 1963, four months after the great battle there, to dedicate the Union cemetery.

“The president’s speech lasted just two minutes,” the voice says. “He started off by reminding his audience that it had been only 87 years since the founding of the Republic, and then went on to embolden the Union cause with some of the most stirring words ever spoken.”

So begins a 90-minute documentary that is not the detailed story of the Gettysburg Address, which had its 150th anniversary last fall, but a look at how one school in Vermont uses the address to teach and inspire its students. “The Address” premieres Tuesday, April 15, at 9 p.m. Eastern time on PBS (check local listings).

The Greenwood School, in Putney, Vt., is a boarding school serving barely more than 50 boys in grades 6-12, all with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, executive-functioning problems, and attention deficit disorder/attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

For 35 years, the school has had a tradition of teaching the Gettysburg Address and encouraging its boys to memorize it and recite it publicly. Starting each November, the students work on the exercise for several months, with their teachers, counselors, and speech therapists helping them master Lincoln’s speech. The effort culminates in a February dinner, around the time of Lincoln’s birthday, in which the students recite the address from memory, before the whole school, their parents, and others.

“Some of you might get it the first year, some of you it might take two or three years, and that’s fine,” Headmaster Steward Miller tells the students in an early scene.

What follows is an often-intense look at the everyday work of a school helping students who have struggled in other educational settings, not just with their disabilities but with bullying and misunderstanding from their peers.

Burns had two film crews embedded at the school as students tackled the address, as well as the rest of their studies. A student named Benj, confronting the multiple clauses in the first line of the Gettysburg Address, asks his teacher whether Lincoln was guilty of crafting a “run on” sentence.

“That’s a good question, but no,” the teacher says.

Another boy politely questions the whole point of the memorization. “Can’t I just have the sheet in front of me?” he says. “Abraham Lincoln did.”

The students seem to trip over some of Lincoln’s longer sentences, such as this one: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

The Greenwood School’s teachers and therapists note that complex language-based tasks are especially difficult for the school’s students. Tom Erhenberg, a therapist whose mustache could rival that of any Civil War-era soldier, notes the frequent refrain from parents that they just hope for their sons to “be normal.”

“It’s not his job to be normal,” Ehrenberg says, meaning each boy has no choice but to deal with his learning disability.

There’s no deep discussion of the pedagogical theories behind a memorization challenge like this, or any effort to tie it to the traditional education movement and multiplication tables and other rote exercises. At this school, and for these boys, though, it does seem right.

(Burns separately promotes an effort to have all American schoolchildren, and even all citizens, learn the Gettysburg Address. The Web site features many prominent Americans reciting Lincoln’s words, from President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush to actress Uma Thurman and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. Not too many of the celebrities appear to be reciting it from memory.)

The narrator of the film’s opening turns out to be a Greenwood student, and other students narrate the brief historical-background passages that Burns includes in the film.

Burns’ cameras capture many moments of utter frustration, as well as breakthroughs large and small. The climactic dinner where students recite the address is a tear-inducing affair.

Viewers will hear the Gettysburg Address a lot during this film. The words are as inspiring as they have been for 150 years. Thanks to Burns, we now know just how motivating they are to one memorable group of students.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.