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Erica Thomas / 1819News.com
History class isn’t for everyone. Learning about things that happened thousands of years ago can be quite daunting for those who are more concerned about being present and enjoying life as it is. However, one East Alabama teacher is making learning great again and is going deep with her students … literally.
Randolph County is a rural county with just under 22,000 people. With a population similar to that of small cities across the state, you wouldn’t know by looking that it had so much historical value. But if you doubt the historical relevance of places such as Roanoke, Wedowee or Woodland, you would be wrong.
The first settlers of Randolph County said it had the purest and coldest freestone water in the world. The county was also one of the last in the state to allow the sale of alcohol in 2012. Now, the county is known as the home of Lake Wedowee, a popular vacation destination for summer travelers.
Meanwhile, her name isn’t Ms. Frizzle, but an eleventh-grade history teacher at Handley High School (HHS) is making magic happen outside the classroom.
Merredith Sears helped start a new kind of class in 2006. The HHS Community Studies class creates opportunities for students to engage in history. Sears said the class wouldn’t be possible without others’ help, but she is proud to be a part of it.
“The most important history is your own history,” said Sears. “We want our students to have pride in their community and participate in the building up of their community.”
Projects for the class are in-depth and hands-on. The projects aren’t always the same, but Sears said the community is always the classroom.
“We’re trying to put the students in the role of the historian and let them discover the history of their hometown because we want them to know that great things come from small communities,” Sears said. “We have great and hidden things and Roanoke City Schools is a small school system but ahead of its time.”
Sears said the students are actually re-writing and correcting history. In fact, a previous class wrote an article for the “Encyclopedia of Alabama.”
Some of the past projects include archaeological digs, local history tours with fourth and sixth graders, cemetery tours where students assume roles of local citizens, documentary making and civic projects such as candidate forums and court tours.
During the archaeological digs, students have discovered items from Native American sites, an old settlement called Louina that is now a ghost town plus an antebellum plantation and a former slave cabin site.
“We could piece together their life because we found a musket ball, we found an old fishhook, and we could piece together a little bit of their lives from that,” Sears explained. “But see, that’s so much more interesting than me giving a lecture about how so-and-so lived. You find it yourself, and you piece it together yourself.”
Sears said when the kids realized they had found something historical, she could see the excitement on their faces.
“If they find something like a banner stone that’s from a device that pre-dates the bow and arrow, you tell them, ‘This could be from 5000 BC,’ and just to hold that history gives them a sense of where they are in the grand scheme of things,” Sears said.
Items discovered are given to the landowners. However, Sears said often the landowner donates the items to the local museum to share with others.
This year, the class had its tenth archaeological dig in Wedowee. The school allowed Sears to take the students out of the class for a week.
Sears said the archaeological digs are an example of how the community has also gotten involved. After hearing about the project, several people came forward, offering their land for a dig.
“We turn over our findings to the Alabama Historical Commission and follow all of the archaeology laws,” Sears added. “We also respect the groups of the past. We’re like, ‘Hey, we’re here for you to teach us with your objects you left behind because we want to appreciate what you did before we were here.'”
Student Brody Yarbrough said he has benefited from the class by learning about things he never would have known about.
“I really do enjoy the hands-on style,” Yarbrough said. “I feel like I learn a lot better that way. You can tell me something so many times but I only remember if I’ve actually done it.”
The junior at HHS said taking tours through his hometown has been eye-opening. He said he is thankful Mrs. Sears has an extraordinary way of teaching.
“I’ve really enjoyed her as a teacher and if I could I would want to stay with her longer,” Yarbrough said. “She’s got a really good character and she’s really fun to be around.”
Sears said The Randolph Leader, the local newspaper, has been an asset to the class.
“We absolutely love The Randolph Leader because they allow us to come into the vault and pull those old bound newspapers out,” said Sears. “A lot of our research has to be done through the newspapers and they let us go physically through those newspapers.”
HHS has also partnered with the Chamber of Commerce, the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the local museum, Auburn University, local historians, archaeologists, churches and families to enhance the program.
The Community Studies class isn’t all about learning history. It also focuses on improving the present. The class gives back to the community by working with adults with mental and physical challenges at the Randolph County Learning Center.
The program has been recognized by the State Bicentennial Committee, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE), the city of Roanoke, the Chamber of Commerce.
Sears said she hopes the one-of-a-kind program empowers students and gives them a deeper understanding and appreciation for the history of their area. It also gives students positive influences both academically and socially. In fact, one former student is now a working archaeologist
Randolph County has a way of producing successful and influential people. Country music’s “The Voice” Vern Gosdin, NFL pro Alvin Wright along with Bradley Bozeman and MLB player Chris Hammond are all from Randolph County. Now, the county has Merredith Sears to celebrate.