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First Person

First Person
Daniella DeFilippo Garran ´94 with her students and community partners at the cape cod museum of natural history.

Finding the first cornerstone

By Daniella DeFilippo Garran ´94

My first history class at Connecticut College was under the tutelage of Marc Forster. Until this class, my experience studying history had been mainly focused on memorization of dates, people and places rather than on the interpretation of events and their meanings: the causes and effects of history. Professor Forster opened my eyes to just how interesting history could be and how it is relevant to all of us. I went on to major in both history and art history, my love of which was fostered by Barbara Zabel, professor of art history, and the late Nancy Rash whose passion for their subject matter was nothing short of inspirational. As a middle school teacher, I try to impart the knowledge, skills and passion for learning in my students that these remarkable professors instilled in me.

I am fortunate to teach in one of Massachusetts´ first charter schools, which, despite constant threats of budget cuts and unrelenting scrutiny from the state and the teachers´ unions, has persevered for almost 15 years. The Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School is a teacher-driven, project-based school that, in many ways, reminds me of Conn. We encourage our students to ask questions, initiate research and solve real-life problems by employing critical thinking skills and working with community partners.

Last winter, our school was approached by a retired lawyer who had recently moved to the Cape and encountered an interesting theory about how the Pilgrims conducted their first land survey to divide up the towns of Cape Cod. The theory is based on the notion that the town-bound lines radiate from a center point in Cape Cod Bay. From geodesy to glaciology, from geology to hydrology, from navigation and cartography to oceanography, and from archaeology to pedagogy, the search for the first cornerstone has taken on a life of its own. Over the past year, I have worked with two dozen students who have made tremendous progress toward validating this theory. I have overseen them as they pore over primary documents, speak articulately with reporters, work surveying equipment and present their findings in a room of 100 people. Their passion for learning has amazed the land surveyors, journalists, college professors, lawyers and archaeologists with whom we have worked.

Whether or not the speculation about the Pilgrims´ surveying methods is proved valid, investigating the logic behind the conjecture as well as learning about the 17th-century mapping and surveying techniques the Pilgrim elders may have used have proved to be the opportunity of a lifetime for my students. This project also clearly demonstrates the potential for middle school students to excel even when given the most complex inquiry- and problem-based curricula; given the necessary tools, resources and guidance, young learners have the ability to make significant contributions to their chosen fields. I am lucky to be able to uphold the same educational values and approach to learning that I gained at Conn; I remain indebted to my professors each day of my teaching career.

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