May 21, 2008
By SETH AUGENSTEIN
SPARTA — In Desiree Viggiano's seventh-grade language arts classes, the past is repeating itself.
At least that's what the students have noticed and are trying to fix.
The Sparta Middle School students were studying the Great Depression and its beginnings earlier this year, and the lessons from the past started to sound familiar. In fact, they seemed to echo today's newspaper headlines.
Just as now, increased housing foreclosures, rising gas prices and state budgetary problems existed in Sparta student1929.
"It was weird to hear what's going on — that it's happening again," said Amanda Salmeri, one student.
The classes saw the proposed closing of the state parks as a particularly foolhardy state decision. As the class is quick to point out, cutting the jobs provided by the state parks would likely put those people back on state unemployment and decrease tourism.
The ongoing lessons spurred each student to write Gov. Jon Corzine a letter last month trying to convince him to reconsider his proposal and save the parks.
The students' letters expressed their concerns about the future of the state's finances, and about how High Point State Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression — a coincidence they find startling. Since those letters were delivered, Corzine has reconsidered his original plans for the state parks, and the teacher believes the classes may have helped play a part in shaping history.
"We write about what happens in our lives, and it becomes history," Viggiano said.
Viggiano has a unique insight of the history she teaches. Her grandfather was in a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Europe, because he was caught harboring Jews. In her second year at the middle school — after four years at Sparta High School — Viggiano has found a method of teaching that engages students by finding aspects of the curriculum that interest them. Whether they relate to contemporary songs about child abuse or the arts from the Harlem Renaissance, the students said their interest has been piqued — and they feel like they're keeping up with the world as it has been, and as it will be.
"We get the feeling like people are more aware than they have been," said Lindsay Cappetta.
The coincidences between the seventh-grade curriculum and the news has been consistent, Viggiano said. The classes have studied the environmental movement, the unfolding economic recession and other headlines from the past that seem to echo today.
"This year, almost every unit we do has something to do with what's showing up in the news," Viggiano said.
The students said they want to help address those headlines before they happen again.
"You realize what's happening around you, and you realize you'll be living with this when you're older," said Amanda Camacho.