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From Lincoln to Obama

2008 Election Provides a Valuable Link to the Past for Fairfax History Class


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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009; Page B02

One in an occasional series on unusual courses in local schools.

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The day after President Obama's inauguration, James A. Percoco's Applied History students imagined how those who sit in their chairs 100 years from now will see that moment in history.

The seniors at West Springfield High School in Fairfax County have been studying Abraham Lincoln, the nation's 16th president, and the civil rights movement. Percoco asked them to envision how Obama will be portrayed in the lessons taught to future generations.

"This whole narrative structure in America that we've talked about in the class," Percoco said. "How do you think the Obama election and inauguration plays into this narrative structure?"

Jake Serwin, 17, raised his hand. "This may be sort of the moment when America in practice gets pretty close to America in theory," he said. "It's always been that 'all men are created equal,' and it says that in our founding documents. Until now it's pretty much been all rich white men are created equal, but now it's sort of becoming, if you're capable and people believe you're capable, you can be president of the United States regardless of your race or gender."

In schools across the country, the confluence of Obama's election and the upcoming celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth has given teachers a unique opportunity to help students connect past to present.

On Feb. 12, Lincoln's birthday, Percoco's students will serve as ushers for the rededication of the Lincoln Memorial. Students from Thomson Elementary School in the District will be there, too, attending a wreath-laying ceremony and the recitation of the Gettysburg Address at the memorial.

Percoco's class also will join author Doris Kearns Goodwin and other scholars for a national "teach-in" that will be webcast live from the National Archives. More than 3,200 schools nationwide have signed up to participate online.

Percoco, a Lincoln scholar who recently published his third book, "Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments," doesn't run a typical history course. The seniors spend only part of the year in class. Many of their lessons come as they volunteer at or visit the area's historical sites. That's the "applied" part of the course.

This year the students are fanning out to such places as Mount Vernon (George Washington's home) and Gunston Hall Plantation in Mason Neck, which was the home of George Mason, a principal author of Virginia's Bill of Rights. Students will volunteer at Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, and at Congressional Cemetery, where David Edgar Herold, who conspired with Booth, is buried.

"What I try to do is show students the relevance between past and future," Percoco said. "The election of Obama just fits in. In the 29 years I've been here, this is the election that has generated the most excitement among kids. They are talking about it, and not just to teachers; they are talking to each other."

On Jan. 21, Percoco reminded students that Fairfax public schools were segregated until the 1960s and that Luther Jackson Middle School in the Falls Church area was once the county's sole high school for black students.

"You guys live in a very, very different world," Percoco said.

They talked about the role of race in the election and the unprecedented crowds that gathered on the Mall for the inauguration. They talked about the Obama T-shirts and buttons and what it was like for the students who attended.

"We've talked about myth a lot in this class in terms of American mythology," Percoco said. "We talked about Lincoln as myth and Dr. King as myth. How do you see this shaking out?"

Dan Williams, 18, sitting in the back of the classroom, spoke up: "You have Lincoln -- to some people he was almost like a god. And you have Martin Luther King," Williams said. "You have all these great people who lead up to Obama. Now Obama has these ginormous shoes to fill because he has to live up to everybody's expectations."

Schools can sign up for the teach-in through the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission at http://www.abrahamlincoln200.org.


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