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Local teachers inject new life into Gettysburg Address

| Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 2:45 p.m.

Tom Gray doesn't always know what he's going to tell the children behind him when they walk though the gates of Gettysburg National Cemetery.

It's the last stop on an annual trip for Shaler Area Middle School's history club. About 50 seventh- and eighth-graders tour the town, battlefields and buildings before arriving at the burial ground President Abraham Lincoln dedicated 150 years ago Tuesday. Gray's job, when they get there, is to somehow tie together all they've seen with Lincoln's immortal address.

“It's hard to explain, but when you're standing there with the kids, you can always find the words,” Gray said.

Teaching the Gettysburg Address has progressed beyond rote memorization as teachers adopt more immersive experiences. Some, like Gray, bring the students to Gettysburg. Others, like South Fayette history teachers Matt Bacco and Dena Hoffman, bring Gettysburg to the students.

Bacco and Hoffman attended a two-day teachers' workshop in August about teaching the Gettysburg Address. Organized by the National Park Service in Gettysburg, the program gave them lesson suggestions, a deeper understanding of the time in which the speech was given, and a script for a re-enactment that cast unsuspecting students as Lincoln's audience in a surprise assembly.

“They're not expecting this. They're not expecting to see their principal dressed up as Abraham Lincoln,” Hoffman said.

“He has the beard and everything,” Bacco said.

History students will be assigned to analyze the speech as journalists. It's more effective — and entertaining — than committing to memory Lincoln's 270-word address.

“When students are in a real world-style (situation), they get a better understanding of the history and context,” said Dave Deramo, the principal and Lincoln stand-in.

Gray, the Shaler social studies teacher, uses the stories of people who fought and witnessed the battle and its grim aftermath to give context to Lincoln's words. Among those they learn about on their trip is Elizabeth Thorn, caretaker of Evergreen Cemetery, which is beside the national cemetery Lincoln dedicated.

“She buried 105 soldiers and removed the carcasses of 36 horses — and she did that when she was six months pregnant,” Gray said.

“We tried to put those kids as close to 1863 as possible,” Gray said.

Mike Wereschagin is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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