By James Pouliot
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Seventh-graders at the Rupert A. Nock Middle School are on the cusp of presenting their Port Projects, a months-long history lesson that aims to educate both the children and the city.
Celebrating the 250th anniversary of Newburyport’s incorporation as a town, the research projects explore all aspects of local history with slideshows, models and oral presentations.
The Custom House Maritime Museum will host 20 selected projects in its galleries from May 23 to May 27, with an opening night ceremony in which students will present their research to friends, family and local historians.
The purpose of the Port Projects is twofold: to increase students’ awareness of Newburyport culture, and to build crucial research and networking skills. The 93 students were expected to use books, online materials and interviews to discover part of the city’s history.
Social Studies teacher John Webber first conceived of the Port Projects after a field trip last spring to the Custom House.
“I became very aware that student knowledge of the history of Newburyport was limited,” Webber said. “There really wasn’t a sense of the history of the town. There wasn’t the element of pride in your community and history and culture.”
After soliciting feedback from the students and pitching the idea to the administration, Webber was encouraged to make the projects part of his “flex” curriculum, a time for less-structured education. Teachers delve into topics outside the normal Common Core curriculum, giving students a glimpse of the lesser-known areas of their fields.
Beginning in October, students were invited to choose topics that speak to them personally. Their choices ranged from investigating architectural landmarks like the Chain Bridge to recounting historical periods like Newburyport’s shipbuilding origins. Webber then asked them to decide for themselves how best to present their findings.
“All these kids have so many different strengths,” he said. “You might have a kid who loves to do things with his hands, just build different models, he’s a tactile learner. You have other kids who are virtual — they love doing video games, they love doing stuff that is online, they love creating videos.
“I encouraged them to use their strengths and do something that is interesting and fun for them, and develop their own product based on their own skills.”
The students then used Webber’s classroom library and local historical resources to jump-start their research. Webber encouraged them to avoid using online resources at first, so as to avoid what he called the “instant gratification” of Googling specific terms and learning only that information.
“Once they discover just snippets, little pieces of information about their topic, that gave them a little bit of direction,” Webber said. “Now they know in their topic specifically what they should search out online, they have a better focus area. It’s not just typing into Google, ‘shipbuilding in Newburyport,’ it’s specific shipyards, specific dates.”
Webber used this summer to develop the curriculum and build a list of contacts for students to contact for more in-depth information. Local historians and longtime residents agreed to help, including Michael Mroz of the Custom House, one of the original minds behind the exhibition.
Webber also accompanied students after school and on weekends to various museums and archives, where they gathered additional data.
Presentations began last week and will run until April vacation.
Seventh-grader Jared Picciano created historical models of trains out of childhood toys. He gave a speech about historical figures who were known to ride the Newburyport line, including presidents James Monroe and Theodore Roosevelt, who gave a campaign speech at the station.
Caroline Laughlin, an avid believer in the paranormal, retold the ghost stories of Newburyport, including Mayor Donna Holaday’s tale of a spooky encounter at Ten Center Street.
Inspired by the Custom House’s shipbuilding room, Michael Twomey researched shipbuilding, including five major Newburyport shipyards.
Dan Van Boom told the tale of Plum Island’s history, including its erosion and the island’s first known appearance in 1616 on the famous Captain John Smith’s map of New England.
“I’m pretty sure he spent all of his weekends helping kids,” Van Boom said of Webber. “I’ve definitely learned a lot from him, he’s definitely one of the best teachers I’ve had throughout the years.”
Webber has been pleased with the outcome. Students have turned in presentations, he said, that rival what would be expected of high school sophomores. He looks forward to showing those projects to the public.
The Custom House Maritime Museum, 25 Water St., will host the Port Projects Opening Exhibition on Friday, May 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. Admission to opening night, during which the students will be present to explain their projects, is free. The projects will be available for viewing until the following Tuesday.