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Eighth-grade journalists research what made the migration 'Great'

Sunday, February 25, 2001

By Ervin Dyer, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was beastie, Mr. Dyer," said Marcus Blackwell.

The eighth-graders who participated in the Black History Month project about The Great Migration were, front, from left, Heather Kuhn, Bridgette Holeman, Rozlynn James and Merecedes Howze; second row, center, Krystal Robinson (jeans jacket) and Marcus Blackwell; and back row, from left, Laura Zlatos, Megan Pfenninger, Hannah Divack and Gillian Goldberg. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

In the hip language of 14-year-olds, beastie means cool, which means good.

Marcus and his nine other classmates had just finished their first round of interviews with local senior citizens. The students were conducting their oral history projects to take part in a story on the Great Migration that would be published by the Post-Gazette for Black History Month. It was also a chance to work on their interviewing skills.

As a journalist who wanted to try his hand at teaching, I've been an adjunct instructor in creative writing at Rogers CAPA for a year. For six months now we've been applying elements of creative writing to news writing.

I knew this project would be the students' greatest challenge, requiring the best of their research, writing and interviewing skills.

The story on the Great Migration draws generously from the students' oral history interviews and collection of anecdotes.

We decided on this project because about two months ago, while on another assignment, the class came across the term "The Great Migration." None of them knew what it was, even though many of their parents or grandparents had been part of the exodus of black people from the South. With Black History Month approaching, it seemed like a perfect topic.

"I know what a migration is, Mr. Dyer," whined Megan Pfenninger during her initial research on the movement. "But I just can't find out what made it 'Great.' "

Now they know, and they swell with pride as if they're the historians who discovered the magnitude of the movement.

With the help of Pittsburgh Citiparks Senior Interests Department and the University of Pittsburgh's Generations Together program, five senior citizens were invited to the school in Garfield, where the students conducted their interviews, collecting stories and remembrances. Other information was gathered in phone calls and Internet research.

I know for me, hearing my grandmother tell stories of her young life and of my father as a boy are some of my fondest memories. I wanted the students to learn to share this bond with a storyteller.

So if it was beastie, I'm glad.

But the seniors also were schooled.

"The students were quite thorough," said Beatrice Vasser, who was amazed her student interviewers were able to get her to speak as candidly as she did.

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