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Bellevue students team with Canadians to study War of 1812

Annie Zelm • Mar 31, 2012 at 5:00 AM

People argue whether the War of 1812 was really a success for anyone. 

It brought death to many Native Americans, including the Shawnee war chief, Tecumseh.

It certainly helped reaffirm America’s independence from Great Britain and strengthened Canada’s identity as a nation, although not without costs. 

But the war’s longest-lasting achievement, perhaps, is the peaceful relationship between America and Canada. Almost 200 years later, the two nations still share the world’s longest undefended border — more than 5,500 miles long.

To honor this centuries-old relationship, eighth-graders in Bellevue are collaborating with their neighbors to the north on a multimedia project. 

Dubbed the Paths to Peace, the year-long project involves U.S. and Canadian students, as well as the U.S. National Park Service and the War of 1812 historical sites in Canada.

Beginning last year, for at least an hour each week, Bellevue Middle School has transformed its classrooms into stages, fitting rooms, art studios and arsenals in a concerted push to prepare students for a performance this May in Amherstburg, Ontario.

Students from Bellevue, Windsor and Amherstburg are studying the war from different perspectives, using artistic interpretations to share what they’ve learned.

Amherstburg is the site of the historic Fort Malden, which served as the headquarters for the British forces in Upper Canada during the war.

On a recent Tuesday, a group of Bellevue eighth-graders shaped clay tips for arrows and spears, while another group searched for sound effects to define fighting — the wails of the wounded, the thunder of cannons, the sick men aboard Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s ships.

“It’s a huge, huge project,” history teacher Joan Gyurke said. “I think it’s going to be phenomenal to take them to Canada.”

The students first met their Canadian counterparts in October when they visited Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial on Put-in-Bay.

Since then, they’ve kept in touch through Facebook, blogs and video chats.

“We just talk about how we can’t wait to see each other in May,” said Shianna Hay, one of the dancers in the performance. “Most of them come over to America all the time just to visit, but I’ve never been to Canada.”

Local artist Jim Andrews, who helped the students paint a backdrop of wilderness for the stage, said it’s important for students to recognize the war’s impact 200 years later.

“If it wasn’t for Perry winning the Battle of Lake Erie, we’d all be speaking Canadian right now,” Andrews said. 

Blanca Stransky, superintendent of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, said it’s been wonderful to see the project take shape.

The national park sponsors educational programs for schools each year, but planners wanted to take it a step further to commemorate the bicentennial of America’s “second war of independence.”

The War of 1812 began June 18, 1812, with President James Madison’s declaration against Great Britain over maritime rights. It ended after the Treaty of Ghent was ratified in February 1815.

To get the project rolling, Stransky obtained a $80,000 federal grant and partnered with Artrain, a Michigan-based nonprofit that provides connections to professional artists throughout the country. The grant will also pay for the Bellevue students’ trip to Canada. 

“Not only are they building appreciation for historical sites, they’re learning appreciation for each other,” Stransky said. “It has just been an absolute win-win for everyone.”

Deb Polich, Artrain’s president and CEO, said it’s natural to teach others through art.

“Art has played a role in the history of humankind from the very, very beginning,” she said. “It’s a way we’ve understood those that came before us, and it’s a fabulous historical tool.

“As the kids have come together, they are learning that every culture has a different perspective on what happened, what the end of the war actually meant.” Polich said.

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