Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Building Stories, Building Memories

August 27, 2014

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As a homeschooling teacher of 11 years and a middle school teacher before that, it has been clear to me for sometime that children learn not nearly as much from textbooks and tests as they do from reading, writing, seeing, and doing. And so, when I saw that  The Henry Ford was putting on a writing contest, I knew that this was a great opportunity for learning--to learn about innovative Americans who began as just shop keepers and, through perseverance, became the first in flight.

We heard about the writing contest about two weeks before the deadline through our Pasadena homeschool group.  I immediately told my 10- and 12-year-old sons, "I have a topic for our writing this week and a generous gift card is awarded to the winner."  Of course, this excited them. We went to the library and they checked out a plethora of information on the Wright Brothers and they spent the next few days deep in research. They learned everything they could about the Orville and Wilbur Wright and they did so of their own volition.  This is the learning that kids remember.

James came to me ready to write but asked me first how many winners there were for his age group. When I told him there was only one he became a little discouraged.  At this point I had an image of the geniuses at the National Spelling Bee in my head or the talented athletes at the National Little League Championship in Williamsport, Penn.,  and thought, there's no way he can get first. (I wonder if the Wright Brothers felt the same way.) However, I saw a twinkle in James' eye that there was some fabulous story inside begging to come out and I wanted to hear it.  I replied that he had zero chance of winning unless he tried.

A couple hours later he came to me with his story. I loved it. The detail is what struck me the most. He had no resources in front of him while he was creating it. They were all in his head. I assumed he was making them up so I Googled a couple of facts but they were right on. Amazing!  His writing teacher, Dad, barely had an opportunity to read it much less edit it before he turned it in.

You can imagine our surprise when we got the call that he had tied for first place in his age group.  He was shocked and excited. What a great life lesson for James or for any child!  To try something even when the chances of success are slim and then actually win.  He was so thrilled.  We wracked our brains for a possibility to go to Michigan for the award ceremony and to see The Henry Ford. Unfortunately, given our particular circumstances,  we had to dismiss the idea.

A week or so before the ceremony, The Henry Ford called us and thanks to the Delta Airlines sponsorship that The Henry Ford had, we were able to fly to Dearborn to attend the award ceremony and visit The Henry Ford.  James was beside himself and I believe he thought about it every waking moment until we boarded the plane, a ride which would be his first plane trip. It is especially appropriate that writing about the first flight would lead to his first flight.

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The lovely ceremony took place right on the front porch of the Wright Brother's home which had been transferred from Dayton, Ohio. How appropriate!  We listened to five wonderful and diverse winners read aloud their essays. All of them where well-written, creative, and unique. The grand prize winner wrote with 'flight' as the first person-- quite intriguing.

Besides seeing the home of the Wright Brothers, James had the great opportunity to see a replica of their first airplane and the bicycle shop where their thoughts originated as wells as watch a play about the Wright family;  all of these experiences, especially right after he had researched and wrote about it, will truly be unforgettable.

On top of that, James got to see Henry Ford's assembly line, Mark Twain's writing desk, and Rosa Park's bus--these things are truly an inspiration to any youth.  Greenfield Village is like a turn-of-the-century Colonial Williamsburg, only better. It's has original buildings instead of replicas.  We got to speak with tour guides at Thomas Edison's workshop, to visit a machine shop which runs on steam, and to participate in Henry Ford's real live classroom.

And of course, as any 10-year-old boy would, James was thrilled to visit the gift shop with his award money. He was mostly excited about his build-it-yourself model airplane of the Wright Brothers first flyer, although he thoroughly enjoyed the frozen custard and mint fudge as well. Among the items he brought home with him was a yo-yo and model cars for his brothers and a pinwheel for his little sister. These toys and old fashioned ones like them instill ingenuity and creativity as they did for many of our great inventors, like Orville and Wilbur, and even Henry Ford.

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I know that he will never forget this wonderful experience:  from learning about the Wright Brothers' first flight and persevering through his own essay, to his own first flight and presenting at and exploring The Henry Ford. Thank you to everyone at the The Henry Ford for inspiring today's youth so that they can become the  "Wright Brothers" and "Henry Fords" of tomorrow.

Monica Grimm is a guest writer for The Henry Ford.

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