Kathleen Miller

From Indiana cornfields to Alaskan wilderness: Students capture history in digital jukebox

Students from West Vigo High School in rural Terre Haute, Indiana found themselves a long way from home last summer. Nine high-achieving students took a giant leap from their “little world in the cornfields of Indiana” to the Last Frontier of Alaska – some even leaping into the 40-degree Arctic Ocean, according to Kathleen Miller, the school’s Family and Consumer Science teacher.

From riding the Alaskan Railroad to experiencing the commercial fishing industry, students immersed themselves in the local culture, alongside Miller and four other educators. They learned how much daily life depends on the management of sea life. “The indigenous people have a far simpler life than we do, with much less access to resources,” said Cody Thornton, a senior. Back in the states, Thornton and his peers gave presentations at the district’s elementary schools on their native experiences.

That’s not all the students brought back with them. Miller and her co-applicant, Cherish Easton, received a $5,000 Learning & Leadership Grant from the NEA Foundation to create student-produced digital works to be archived in a retro jukebox—turned—digital library. The project drew inspiration from a similar one called the “Jukebox Project,” storing oral histories from hundreds of native Alaskans at the University of Alaska, where Miller studied the preservation of indigenous knowledge years ago.

“I found so many parallels and commonalities– even though we were miles apart– about how important community is to the whole education process,” Miller said.

A team of veteran and new teachers aided the “Human Development” and “Issues and Applications” classes of 33 seniors in producing media to commemorate the school’s 50-year anniversary. More than 50 oral histories— from profiles on distinguished alumni to a 1966 football game converted from 16mm film— now live in the “Viking Jukebox,” named after West Vigo’s mascot. Crafted from an old stage prop and embedded with a computer, the digital time capsule is accessible on campus and the school’s website.

During the year-long process, students mastered 21st century media skills, like video editing and digital photography. “Our students are very savvy when it comes to cell phones and texting, but creating something that is publishable is a challenge,” Miller said.

Students also wrote scripts and coordinated phone and Skype conferences with alumni and retired teachers. “I had to do a lot of researching and digging deep into yearbooks, magazines, interviewing teachers, and talking with people around the area that know more about the topic,” said Erin Barton, a senior. Her classmate Mikaila Kelley took to task “making sure we had all of the information correct and in a well-organized manner.”

To find local lore to populate the jukebox, students stepped into their own backyards. They visited the Wabashiki Wetlands, took an airboat ride down the Wabash River, and held class with local community leaders at the historic New Goshen Little Brick Schoolhouse.

Upon her retirement, Miller leaves behind a project that teachers of technology, manufacturing, writing, and more, can continue to adapt. And they won’t have to wait long to see the results. One of Miller’s struggling students passed the language arts test. Others improved their English skills. Three female students applied for Child Development Associate programs. “I know those girls who went to Alaska have been stronger students this year,” Miller said. At the same time, her students leave behind a piece of themselves that the whole community can experience for years to come. “Knowing that others can enjoy the stories and see the memories is a wonderful thing,” said Senior Sara Umphries.