High school juniors are hardly the target audience for jazz saxophonist Kenny G.
Nonetheless, the 11th-graders at Soldotna High School are intimately familiar with at least one of his songs.
The students spent several days last month examining the "lyrics" to the artist's millennium mix of "Auld Lang Syne," as part of an intensive study of 20th century U.S. history.
The project was the brainchild of Teresa Kiffmeyer, a social studies specialist with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
A self-proclaimed fan of Kenny G, Kiffmeyer said she heard his millennium tribute and immediately thought "school project."
On the recording, Kenny G softly plays the holiday song behind audio clips of famous quotes and entertainment and news events of the 20th century. The song starts with Thomas Edison's invention of the phonograph (actually in the late 1800s) and continues all the way through the school shooting at Columbine High School in the late 1990s.
Along the way are major moments in World War II, Vietnam, Korea and the Gulf War; famous speeches by John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; tragedies such as the assassination of world leaders, the Iran hostage crisis and the crash of space shuttle Challenger; and happier moments such as Woodstock, the fall of the Berlin Wall and significant sports events. The song ends a little out of chronological order with John F. Kennedy's statement, "Let the word go forth from this time and place that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans."
Taken together, the song offers a concise but thorough history of the last 100 years, Kiffmeyer said. And it provides a unique learning opportunity for today's students, who were born too late to remember most of the events.
Kiffmeyer transcribed all 86 quotes from the song, then created a worksheet for the students to complete in groups. The project was about more than memorizing dates, though. Students had to identify not only the speaker and date of each quote, but also the historical significance. And they had to find the information in a number of sources, practicing research techniques on the Internet as well as from books and interviews.
"Some kids even called their grandparents long distance and got their families involved," she said. "It was a neat activity."
After the students had completed the worksheets, Kiffmeyer scored their answers, then gave students an opportunity to contest her findings.
"I knew I'd make mistakes, so I gave them a period for justification," she said. "For example, with Martin Luther King's death, most said the significance was that it set back the civil rights movement, but one team said it was significant because it caused major race riots."
After the team pointed out its sources of information and argued the case, the students received points for their unique answer.
In the end, the students with the most points in each class received a pizza lunch, and the overall winners were given a vast array of prizes at a small assembly.
"These kids worked their tails off," Kiffmeyer said. "Every group was focused and very few kids got under 300 points (out of 400). I was really pleased with the efforts of these kids."
Plus, she said, the kids themselves said the project was meaningful.
"Some found it really significant," she said. "I couldn't have hoped for more."
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