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Junior high students re-enact FDR Torchlight Parade

| November 8, 2016

Shaker Junior High School students experienced a unique perspective on presidential elections when they ventured back in time during an October visit to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Estate and Historic Site in Hyde Park, NY to re-enact a classic Torchlight Parade from the election of 1940.

Clad in popular clothing styles of that era, the approximately 30 eighth-graders marched with placards featuring slogans and pictures akin to those that would have been carried 76 years ago by supporters, and adversaries, during FDR’s re-election bid for his third term as president.

“One of our goals was to have the students travel to the FDR estate during the day and participate in a re-enactment to experience what it was like,” said social studies teacher Kathryn Peterson, “and to learn more about the Torchlight Parade, itself, because that is something they don’t often learn about in school.”

Torchlight backdrop

Throughout much of FDR’s political life, residents of Hyde Park would march in spirited torchlight parades at Springwood, Roosevelt’s family home. The National Park Service hosts reenactments of the famous parades every four years, representing each of the four terms that FDR was elected president. During the various election years, residents of Hyde Park both supporters and non-supporters would march through the grounds of FDR’s estate to his front door. FDR would emerge with Eleanor, his wife, and other family members, including his beloved dog, Fala, to greet the people and address them directly.

“Back then, it was traditional to be able to access your president, certainly more than we can today,” Peterson said. “It became pretty common when he was re-elected, for people to gather at his home and for FDR and his family come out and speak to the public.”

This year’s reenactment focused on the election of 1940. Shaker eighth-graders researched and replicated campaign materials from that election, including the placards that were donated to the FDR national historic site for re-enactors to use when marching in the evening Torchlight Parade at the estate.

The junior high students representing all four halls – Clay, Calhoun, Houston and Norris – also created a Powerpoint presentation focused on FDR’s 1940 campaign. To prepare, they read books from the junior high’s library collection and conducted online research to create slides highlighting FDR’s accomplishments as president.

“The students researched all the platforms and the messages that FDR would have run on during his presidential campaign. All the positive accomplishments he achieved as president from 1933-1939 and throughout his career – including the New Deal, and leading the country out of the Great Depression,” said Judy Stott, Shaker Junior High School library media specialist. The student-created slideshow remained on display at the Wallace Center throughout the day for visitors to view.

Peterson said during their visit, her students marched the same route that Hyde Park residents would have – starting at the Wallace Center and ending at the front steps to the mansion doors – to meet with FDR.

“The actor who played the role of FDR was great. He came out of the house to greet the students and he gave a speech,” she said. “He basically rehearsed for the evening event with our students, who later toured the house and the museum. It was an amazing and fun experience for our students who were the center of attention from everyone there – including the tourists and a camera crew!”

Skills and takeaways

Peterson and Stott agreed that students learned valuable skills through this project, including researching and applying the information they learned from creating the slide presentation to their participation in the event. They also practiced their public presentation skills representing their school and interacting with the visitors and park rangers alike.

“Having the discipline to choose a topic, to research and to follow it through from start to finish is impressive,” Stott said. “This project was completely voluntary; it was not required of students, so they did this in addition to their regular school work and extracurricular activities. That shows their commitment.”

More importantly for Peterson is the level of student engagement. “I want them to love history, to have an enthusiasm for it and understand its relevancy to today,” she said.

On to the next project

The National Park staff has approached Peterson and Stott about having Shaker students create artwork for the public learning spaces at the Wallace Center where younger students participate in hands-on learning exhibits.

“It’s a giant project, almost overwhelming to think about,” Peterson said. “Judy and I are brainstorming ideas for the focus of art, which could include the flora and fauna of the Hyde Park area, and FDR’s younger years growing up.”

“The most challenging part will be to decide on the story we want to tell with the artwork,” Stott said. 

Still, both are eager to get started. Stay tuned …

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