Their goal was to make history lessons on the "westward expansion" more interesting for fifth- and sixth-graders at Mt. Washington Elementary, by helping them create a museum exhibit about the pioneers in their own families.
But what staffers at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage found at their adopted school was far from the 1890s covered-wagon-journey-westward-across-the-horizonless-prairie that dominates many textbooks.
Instead, the students, their parents or grandparents had walked north across the border from Central America, they had taken planes east from Asia, they had driven cars west from New York. Among the 34 students, only four grandparents were born in the United States.
"We started getting stories from everywhere--this really rich mosaic," said Cynthia Harnisch, the museum's education director. "It's who we are as Californians, not programming for the idealized kids we used to think we were or wanted to be."
The resulting exhibit, titled "A Gallery of Our Own"--which opened Friday in the Gene Autry museum lobby and will continue through Labor Day--contains artifacts as only a 10-year-old would define them.
Yes, there is a dog-eared photo from the Mexican Revolution, a red leather canteen from Yugoslavia and a father's letterman sweater, described in one of the student-written labels as "very heavy and old and dusty and smelly." There are baby shoes and several baptismal gowns.
But there are also Pogs, graffiti panels and a "talk back" wall, where viewers are invited to script their own "positive messages of hope to our community."
After spending the past two semesters learning how to plan, gather, edit and mount an exhibit, the 34 fifth- and sixth-graders got their first glimpse of the finished product Friday morning, and pronounced it "Cool!"
"This became the driving force in our classroom," said teacher Liz Smith, as she watched her class mill excitedly around the display cases. "Everything [we study] plugged into the museum exhibit: history, math, English . . . everything."
The exhibit was an outgrowth of Mt. Washington's 1990 adoption by the Autry museum--one of more than 1,000 private and public partnerships at 700 Los Angeles Unified schools. It is the only such liaison involving a museum, according to Eiko Moriyama, director of the district's Adopt a School Program.
The project began with weekly lessons at either the museum or the classroom, team-taught by Smith and museum educator Noelle Toal, and financed with a $35,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum Services, which paid for school buses, exhibition supplies and teacher training. The Autry hopes to extend the program to a second school in the fall, if the museum can get another grant.
In initial lessons, Mt. Washington students were taught how to interview their family members, producing oral histories that would help them determine which aspects of their history to highlight in the exhibit.
At first, Smith said, the students professed to have nothing tangible to exhibit. "They said, 'We don't have any of that stuff,' " she said. But gradually, keepsakes forgotten on closet shelves or stored high out of reach were taken down and took on added significance.
Raul Sanchez, 11, found that an off-white knit blanket stacked with other linens had been carried on his parents' backs as they traveled by foot from El Salvador to Los Angeles. It had been passed down by the women in his family for generations, beginning with his great-grandmother.
"My mom told me she wants to give it to someone, too, but we're all boys so she doesn't know what to do," Raul said.
In many cases, the family interviews led students to discover things or solve long-pondered mysteries.
Mitzie Leiva, 12, learned that her great-great-great-great-grandfather was president of Guatemala in the mid-1800s. Mitzie wrote to her grandmother in Guatemala and asked her to send a history book that referenced Justo Rufino Barrios--a book she then included in the museum display.
Daryl Hand, 11, had always wondered why the mere mention of his uncle set off an emotional reaction in his family. He found out that Pvt. 1st Class Erwin Gilbert Powell Jr. was killed in the Vietnam War at age 25. Daryl's exhibit: war medals and photos of a smiling uncle and his uncle's machine gun.
For parents, the newfound obsession with family history was largely welcomed. Myrna Tellez said that probing by her daughter, Melisa, had heightened her own awareness of her Mexican heritage. She was the only one of four siblings born in this country.
"It was incredible for me and for Melisa's grandmother," Tellez said. "Sometimes we don't really think much about our own cultures . . . and we should."
For students, the lesson prompted thoughts not only about their history, but also about their legacy. In the case labeled "Kids collect, too!" they displayed some of the things they hope to hand down.
In 10-year-old Leland Estrada's case, those future artifacts include cardboard discs known as Pogs, which he characterized as "almost extinct" in the exhibit catalogue, even though they were popular as recently as last summer.
"Most people had Pogs . . . but they don't play them anymore," Leland said. "I want to pass them on to my grandchildren."