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Living History

Bill Coate's students unearth the past.

Bill Coate's students unearth the past.
—Photograph by Roger Wyan

In each of the past 20 years, Bill Coate’s social studies classes have brought a pioneering resident of Madera, California, back from the dead. Not an easy task for anyone, let alone a group of 6th graders. But through his guidance and their meticulous research, Coate’s students have disinterred and published memories of explorers, inventors, and leaders who lived and died in the Northern California town, which dates back to the 1870s.

Every school year, the project begins at the most natural but unusual of places—a cemetery. Hunting among the headstones, the students from Sierra Vista Elementary School usually find an unusual epitaph or some other grave site curiosity that grabs them. Starting with the information on the tombstone, they then set out to follow the paper trail left by the man or woman. Split into groups, they recover dusty death certificates from the county records office, an obituary from the local paper’s archives, census reports, wills, military records, and land deeds, among other sources. Naturally, Coate observes, documents often lead to questions that can only be answered by other documents, and the research grows from these findings. "The students cease being passive recipients," he says.

By the end of the school year, the class has uncovered and woven together enough information to self-publish a biography of the pioneer. The book, complete with a Library of Congress call number, is then presented at a "young author’s reception," and the community is invited to appreciate the youngsters’ work. The appreciation, Coate says, is mutual. "The community sees the kids as being interested in the history of the town, and the kids in turn see the community as supporting their work."

The students—and Coate—say they feel privileged to be able to tell Madera’s residents about their town’s past. "We get to learn about the times back then, and putting a book together is pretty neat," says Ronnie Zaragosa, 11. This school year marks the 20th anniversary of what has become known as the Madera Method, which is now used by classes in schools as far away as North Carolina. But Coate says his students’ enthusiasm for rediscovering a part of the past keeps his own avidity fresh. "It’s always an eye-opening experience," he notes. "There’s a life-changing aspect to this, and the way in which students become part of something eternal is pretty amazing."

—Urmila Subramanyam

Vol. 15, Issue 6, Page 72

Published in Print: May 1, 2004, as Colleagues
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