By Mike Marsee
The 7th-grade students at Maurice Bowling Middle School (Owen County) couldn’t have told you much about Vice Adm. Willis Lee when the school year began, and Denise Humphries couldn’t have spoken at length about project-based learning.
Now, Humphries and her students are experts on both subjects.
A language arts teacher who is in her 26th year in education and her 17th year at Maurice Bowling Middle, Humphries learned about Lee from a newspaper story published days before the start of the 2016-17 school year that detailed his accomplishments and his lack of recognition in Kentucky. Lee, a native of Owen County, fought in two world wars and was such a skilled marksman that he won seven Olympic medals.
“I thought, ‘We need to do something about this. This is a good opportunity for my students,’” she said. “I didn’t ask them whether they wanted to do something about it; I just put it out there for them. They got fired up about it.”
Her students went to work raising awareness of Lee both in their community and on a statewide level with efforts that have been successful well beyond their expectations.
There is a “Hometown Hero” banner on the old courthouse square in Owenton. A state roadside historical marker will soon be erected there as well. Lee also was inducted into the Owen County Athletic Hall of Fame and nominated for the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.
Groups of students spoke to civic groups and elected officials, wrote letters and raised donations for the historical marker, easily reaching their goal of raising $2,500 by March 1.
“I preach every year to my kids about the power of the pen. You don’t know what you can accomplish when you start communicating in the right format, with the right people, and how you can make things happen,” Humphries said.
“Don’t underestimate the power of a 12-year-old who has a passion. Help them find something that they’re passionate about. Give them some parameters, and then stand back and turn them loose. They just amaze me.”
The students are still fired up, especially when they think of all they have accomplished in just a few months.
“I’m surprised we came this far,” student Brooklyn Morris said.
Lee grew up in Owen County, graduating from Owenton High School before attending the U.S. Naval Academy. He became a star on the rifle team despite wearing thick glasses as a result of a childhood injury.
He served on two destroyers in World War I and commanded several destroyers between the world wars. In 1920, he won seven Olympic medals – five golds, one silver and one bronze – in shooting. He shared a record for most medals awarded to an individual in a single Olympic games that stood for 60 years, and he remains the Kentuckian with the most Olympic medals.
In November 1942, Lee led a task force of American battleships to victory over a larger Japanese invasion force in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, marking a turning point in the Pacific Theater in World War II. As a result of his action, he was promoted to vice admiral and was awarded the Navy Cross. He died of a heart attack in August 1945, eight days prior to the surrender of Japan.
A naval destroyer was named in his honor in 1952.
“It’s devastating to know that even though he grew up here, nobody knows about what he did,” Morris said.
Humphries teaches about 150 7th-grade students, and all have been involved in the Lee project. They divided into groups and were given four possible projects to work on:
- writing letters to city and county officials proposing a courthouse monument in Lee’s honor;
- nominating Lee to the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame;
- completing an application for a historical roadside marker; and
- applying for a “Hometown Hero” banner through the Operation Honor program.
Each group gathered evidence from what they had studied in class and in many cases, did more research on their own before writing the letter or completing the application assigned to their group.
Students also developed PowerPoint presentations and have presented to at least five groups, ranging from the local historical society to the Owen County Fiscal Court. Some students even were interviewed for newspaper stories, including a follow-up to the story that sparked the project.
“My principal said, ‘You’re doing project-based learning. That’s exactly what that is,’” Humphries said. “We had sent some teachers to training for that over the summer, but I was not one of them. I said, ‘I don’t know anything about that. I understand this is a project, and I hope they learn something from it.’
“It was neat to see that I was doing something at the forefront in education, and I’ve trained myself as I’ve gone.”
Teresa Rogers, a literacy consultant with the Kentucky Department of Education, said Humphries’ work incorporates many of the elements supported by the research of Steve Graham and Delores Perin, who identified the instructional practices found to be effective for helping adolescent students learn to write well and use writing as a tool for learning.
“Humphries’ project specifically focuses on the three practices that are often missing in classrooms – authentic inquiry activities, specific product goals and a collaborative writing environment. Not only are these practices effective, they also increase student engagement and motivation, as highlighted by student response,” Rogers said.
Humphries’ students said they were encouraged by their successes along the way.
“We learned more about him and became more confident, and when we finally got our results we became really happy,” Dylan Wainscott said. “And I think the best thing was we were able to join a family that had no idea about their ancestors.”
That happened when Lee was inducted into the Owen County Athletic Hall of Fame. Distant relatives from three locations – who had never met – attended the ceremony and left with plans for a family reunion.
Humphries took her students on a field trip to the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort, where they saw Lee’s Olympic medals.
“That gave us a lot of inspiration to keep going,” student Annie Juarez said.
The students said Humphries’ guidance was critical to the project.
“She got us into it and encouraged us to keep going,” Charlie Baumann said.
“She didn’t want to stress us, so she gave it to us step by step and over time,” Gwyn Maurer added.
The students’ work will continue even after they are promoted to 8th grade. The roadside historical marker is scheduled to arrive later this month, and there are plans for a dedication ceremony in June. The group also was encouraged to nominate Lee for the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame a second time after he was not included in the 2017 induction class.
Humphries said she hopes this project has made the students aware that people from small towns can do great things.
“Winston Churchill and President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt commended him. He was a turning point in the South Pacific front. He changed the world. And to try to get the magnitude of that across to a group of 12-year-olds, they were just amazed,” she said. “This is where he came from and look at what he did. I think it’s really given a lot of these kids hope.”
Humphries’ message has gotten through.
“You wouldn’t think that somebody that came from such as small town could do such big things like earning the Navy Cross or getting five gold medals in the Olympics,” Charlie said.
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