Ken Burns Explores the Greenwood School’s Gettysburg Address Recitation

Ken Burns' The Civil WarIf you’re of a certain age, been a U.S history student during the past two decades, and/or a PBS aficionado, you know Ken Burns interest in the civil war through his exhaustive 1990 documentary The Civil War.

The Civil War still stands as benchmark among documentary films for its length, audience size, and quality of scholarship.

Lesser known- although perfectly sensible- is Burns affection for and interest in the “Gettysburg Address.”

The “Gettysburg Address,” his home in Walpole, New Hampshire, and this year’s 150th anniversary of the Address form the web that brings Burns to the Greenwood School and its right of passage- memorization and public recitation of the Gettysburg Address.

As a right of passage each Greenwood boy must memorize and recite- before the entire school community- the “Gettysburg Address” as graduation requirement.  Greenwood’s founders Tom and Andrea Scheidler brought the practice to Greenwood from their earlier work at Linden Hill School.  Burns has been a guest judge in the Greenwood competition for about a decade.

Easy, you say, if you’re traditional learner and know the “Address.”  (Quick refresher- “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”) After all, even with its power, eloquence, and importance the “Address” is only about 270 words- a little more than one typed, double spaced page.

But, Greenwood boys learn differently and, for each Greenwood boy, how to learn the “Gettysburg Address” and summoning the courage to recite it to his community becomes a series of challenges and lessons that shape a life.

In these challenges, Burns finds larger stories and from Thanksgiving to February 15 this academic year, Burns embedded a film crew into Greenwood’s daily life and “Gettysburg Address” recitation challenge.

“The boys were all magnificent; their individual struggles and courage were so evident as the great words of great men echoed throughout the evening, giving even more meaning to them than anyone could dare guess,” Burns observed.

Some students memorize the “Gettysburg Address” their first year. For some it’s a multi-year challenge. But the challenge forces each student to find a way.  To ask for help.  To struggle and to figure out how he can best learn.

Miller emphasizes the primary lesson in the memorization process as “grit.”  No matter the timeframe, the learning and presentation of the “Address” requires an array of talents and practices from each boy- courage, resilience, creativity, discipline.

Miller notes the life-long lessons imbedded in Greenwood’s rite of passage:

“…Learning about committing to memory one of the most important speeches in American history; fostering “grit-” setting a goal and sticking to it, even when encountering adversity; students supporting each other through successes and challenges; and each student finding the courage and inner strength to recite the speech from memory- in front of of hundreds. It is a triumphant and powerful confidence building experience that serves as a reference point for these students throughout their lives.”

Set a goal.  Hold it.  Work toward it.  You can.  You will find a way.

Alumni return to campus and recite the Address- speaking of what it taught them and how it continues in their lives.

Miller relays how wetlands advocate, Matt Blake, Greenwood ’88, recently returned to campus and explained that he uses the “Address” and his Greenwood public speaking experience to center himself before speaking to audiences in his work.

It’s not about the Greenwood coin that each boy receives upon delivering the Address.  It’s about the process.

Each Greenwood boy finds a way to succeed.  Each boy’s route to success comes differently.  The Greenwood community stays unified in the process.  The boys help each other.  The faculty help the boys.  Through the process, each boy learns much about himself; what it takes for him to succeed; and a bit of American history.

Burns again:

“Greenwood is in us now  and we hope in the not too distant future to be able to share with you a film that surprises, delights, moves and yet is utterly familiar to the families and the extraordinary staff who work to try to deliver these boys from their enslavement, who try to give them, each and every one of them, a new birth of freedom.”

Burns expects to release the film this November to coincide with the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address.

See photos from the Gettysburg Address Reception.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

More by Brian Fisher

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