More than words

Burns’ newest film looks at how a small school in Putney uses Lincoln’s most famous speech as a learning tool

BRATTLEBORO — Learning to memorize and recite Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has been a rite of passage at the Greenwood School in Putney for 35 years.

“The speech may be relatively short. It takes about two minutes to say. But memorizing it by heart poses a substantial challenge for our students, as it does for many others of the general public,” says Connie Evans, who long taught social studies at the boarding school for young men struggling with learning disabilities.

More than an exercise in memory skills, the ritual is a test of public speaking skills as well, because the students at the boarding school ultimately must present their version to an audience at a public contest.

One of the judges of those speaking contests has been filmmaker Ken Burns, and the experience of watching a group of Greenwood students take on one of the most famous speeches in American history inspired Burns to make a documentary about it.

Burns will present the world premiere of his film The Address on April 2 at 7 p.m. at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro.

This 90-minute documentary, which will appear on PBS on April 15, tells the story of 50 Greenwood students, ages 11 to 16, as they go through the process of learning about the Gettysburg Address as well as the art of public speaking.

Burns will introduce the film and take questions afterwards.

At the PBS website, Burns's documentary is described as “interweaving the history of this most famous of American speeches with the contemporary journey of the boys at Greenwood [which] reveals the timeless resonance of the President's words while culminating in the triumph of the contemporary human spirit.”

The Greenwood School serves middle- and high-school aged boys with diagnosed learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and attentional difficulties like attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The school says its mission is to empower the students with “the skills and strategies necessary to bridge the gap between their outstanding promise and present abilities.”

Despite the students' learning disabilities, they are intelligent and often display significant talents in other areas, such as the arts, woodworking, or athletics.

Because of that discrepancy between potential and performance, many students suffer from issues of low self-esteem. The educational philosophy of Greenwood School focuses in part on helping students recover their confidence and self-worth.

“Each year we have three winners, based not only on accuracy, but expression of delivery,” says Evans. “Some years, you get a student who really knocks it out of the ballpark, but every year I am really amazed how much the students have accomplished.”

“Some of the students, including one of the winners last year, have significant speech impediments which they must overcome in delivery,” she adds. “No one is given special treatment; all are judged equally.”

This contest has always been a major event at Greenwood. Besides Burns, judges have included such notable figures as Governor Peter Shumlin and former Governor Jim Douglas.

When he judged the contest last year, Burns, who believes that the Gettysburg Address is the finest speech in the English language, described it as “such an incredible endeavor that it really has to be a film. Of course, not by me, because I really don't do that kind of movie.”

He thought the film should be done in a cinéma vérité style, a departure from the stylized historical documentaries for which he is famous.

But after he thought about it a while, he decided, “Why not? I'll do it.”

Shadowing the students

Burns' team spent several months virtually living at Greenwood, filming the students while they worked on learning the Gettysburg Address.

“It was strange at first having these filmmakers following us around, but after a while you get so used to it you forget they're there,” says Evans. “The crew really was awesome, and they formed a great rapport with the boys.”

And she described Burns as “terrific.”

“He even paid for the whole school to go down and visit Gettysburg battlefield, putting us up in a hotel so we could tour the historic site,” Evans says. “It was a great adventure for the boys and, I should add, the teachers, too.”

None of the students or faculty have seen the film yet, except for a preview available at the PBS website. The whole school will attend the premiere.

“It will be their first time to watch themselves in the completed movie,” Evans says.

With its leaders inspired by the enthusiasm of the film, Greenwood last year reached out to other schools dealing with learning disabilities to encourage them also to try learning the Gettysburg Address with their students. All across America schools responded.

On the same afternoon of the premiere of The Address at the Latchis, Greenwood will host a gala competition for all the winners from 15 school across the country to find a national champion.

And to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Burns, with numerous partners, launched a national effort to encourage everyone in America to record video of themselves reading or reciting the speech.

The collection of recordings housed on the Learn the Address website include videos by President Obama and former Presidents Bush and Clinton, among many other notable people.

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