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Teacher helps students step back into sold Savannah

By Marilyn HoffmanStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 1980



On almost any sunny day Sarah Parsons, trailed by a gaggle of students, can be found exploring the famous outdoor squares, buildings, gardesn, and museums of Savannah, Ga.

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She is teaching the students, in what she terms an open citywide classromm, to "look down, look around, look up" -- to take note of every detail from the wrought-iron footscrapers and downspouts on houses to the tall, graceful spires on the city's churches. As she goes, she describes, in her animated soft Southern speech, the important places, people, and events that have helped shape Savannah into the colorful city that it is today.

Mrs. Parsons and the 36,000 students she has reached during the last three years are part of a unique program for teaching local and state history and developing students' appreciation of local architecture, horticulture, and education.

Sarah Parsons carries the title of "heritage classroom teacher." The unusual "on site" teaching laboratory she has developed over the past four years in known as "The Heritage Classroom Program as MassieSchool." Both the position and the project grew out of a US bicentennial program staged in 1976.

The old Massie School, built in 1856, had been retired from daily use in 1974 but had been preserved as a historic landmark in Savannah. Mrs. Parsons, a local teacher, was asked to show the community how a typical classroom at Massie , with its teacher and pupils, might have looked and performed in 1856.

She first restored the classroom to its mid19th-century appearance. Then she and a group of students donned costumes and, for five days, turned back the calendar a centurey to hold school as it might have been.

Everyone learned so much from the research and study involved in the project that the concept was expanded into a permanent teaching program. It was to be headquartered at the Massie School and developed by Mrs. Parsons and a group of interested local citizens called The Friends of Massie Committee.

That program has been maturing ever since, with the cooperation of the Savannah School Board and the involvement of the local garden clubs, the Victorian Society, the Historic Savannah Foundation, and other professional and civic organizations.

Mrs. Parsons has enlisted a support staff of city architects, urban planners, engineers, historians, and preservationists to serve as quest speakes. She herself has developed curricula and conducted workshops for other teachers. Each year she allows the program to change as needs and interests dictate.

She calls Savannah's National Historic District her "school without walls." It is often there, she says, that she helps students develop a sense of place and scale, as well as a sense of history. It is there, too, that she teaches them how to become "visually literate," recognizing architectural elements, details, and proportions, as well as the names of plants, flowers, and trees in the natural environment.

Mrs. Parsons also makes ample teaching use of the facilities of the 14 local museums, even studying the Colonial cemetery with its tombstones and epitaphs.

Units of study worked out for students may range from a single lesson to six weeks to an entire school year. "Often a teacher will call me," Mrs. Parsons says, "and ask for one introductory lesson to the history of Savannah, or a single demonstration of a day of school, circa 1856."

Children in the first through third grades start the program with walking tours in which they are taught to recognize the simplest elements of architecture. Later they learn the differences between Roman, Greek, and Gothic styles of architecture and how to recornize the Savannah adaptations. More advanced pupils study such topics as Savannah's City Plan, its 24 open squares, its early industries and work skills, and its "Victorian fashions, fabrics, and frills."

Since Mrs. Parsons thinks children remember best what they dramatize most, she believes strongly in the use of costumes and play-acting, and puppets and processions and pageantry, both in the schools and in the community. Herigate program students help celebrate the anniversary of the founding of Massie Schools each October with music, readings, games, and dancing. In February they celebrate the anniversary of the 1733 founding of the Georgia colony, and in May the century-old tradition of maypole dancing and festivities.

Each year both children and adult volunteers from the community dress in costume and visit middle schools to show students how to conduct town meetings as they were in Colonial days. High school students dress in costume to help teach elementary school children the jobs and careers that were most important in the Georgia colony in 1733. Craft festivals, band concerts, and picnics also have their place as teaching devices in the heritage program, along with the more usual books and film strips and slide shadows.

Most classes in the program begin at Massie School with an initial orientation and what-to-look-for session. This precedes the walking and looking tours. Sometimes Mrs. Parsons goes instead to classrooms in some of Savannah's 56 public schools to conduct heritage classes. Many of the city's private schools participate in the program, as well.

The Heritage Calssroom Program has been so successful that it is now being studied by educators in many other cities and states. A group of Japanese educators looked in this past year, and Mrs. Parsons was invited to speak at the recent national conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation