Archive Project Challenges Juniors to Examine Their Own Stories

From newspaper clippings and dog-eared books to hospital bands and old polaroids, the Class of 2021 went on a journey of self-discovery as they collected meaningful personal materials for their final English project of the year. Inspired by the book Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, the project tasked grade 11 American Literature 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. 
To begin, students considered what they would like to include in their digital archives and how those items tied into both their own personal narratives and the larger American story. They referenced their summer reading and the novels they read throughout the year together (The Great Gatsby, Fun Home, The Bluest Eye, and The Scarlet Letter), selected quotations that reinforced their selections, and identified a theme that their archive related to from American literature.

“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 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.

One student made connections between her summer reading book, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, and its focus upon memory and her own love of the movie Stand By Me. In her archive, she wove together old photos that told a coming-of-age story of nostalgia, growing up, and friendship.

I remember watching the movie for the first time when I was little and thinking that it was absurd that such a close-knit group of friends could grow apart so easily,” said Sofia Geminetti, Class of 2021. “In the photo I chose for my archive, there is one friend who I don't speak to anymore, one who is moving halfway across the country this summer, and one who is still my very best friend. However, if you had asked me at the time the photo was taken, I would have said that the four of us would be friends forever. I never understood the good things about change until I was older, and while sometimes I am still resistant to change, I’ve realized it’s all a part of growing up.”

For another 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 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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