Third- and fifth-grade students at W.J. Bryan Elementary’s Museum Magnet School in North Miami convened each Wednesday for four months in their school’s media center to brainstorm, write and illustrate a work of historical fiction that will be published in the Library of Congress.
Students joined themes of history, architecture and cultural diversity to create three characters: a Spanish boy, a Haitian girl and the school personified into a talking building with a mustache, red lips and a hundred-years worth of stories to tell.
“It doesn’t tell me history like textbooks would and it’s boring. Instead, it shows me,” said fifth grader Cing Lun. “We can see history here in front of our eyes and we want to share that story.”
The school, which was built in 1928 and is a designated historical landmark, is used as a teaching tool as part of an object-based learning curriculum.
Rosemarie Wolfson, the school’s lead museum magnet teacher, said the building is used in all subject areas, from learning about its history and architecture, to counting the number of ceiling tiles and calculating its square footage in math.
The project included “learning expeditions” to other Miami-Dade Mediterranean revival sites like Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Freedom Tower and Coral Gables Elementary.
The school itself has transformed into a makeshift museum.
Hallways are lined with display cases of artifacts the students found during the renovations and their artwork of their school’s architecture decorates the walls. The students become tour guides with every visitor.
“These kids are sponges and we are showing them that they can be anything — architects, preservationists, historians, artists,” Wolfson said.
Cing wants to be a writer when she grows up.
The book began from a story the 11-year-old was writing in her spare time, inspired by the school’s ongoing restoration project that included its courtyard fountain in 2012 and most recently its auditorium, which opened its refurbished doors March 7.
“Every building has a soul,” she said. “Here, we’re attuned with our school and its soul.”
The fifth grader became the project leader and the book’s editor.
“I’m not a writer and through the whole process Cing would say ‘this doesn’t sound right’ or ‘that’s not the right word,’ ” Wolfson said. “We weren’t the editors, she was the editor.”
The students presented the completed book, Golden Shields of Knowledge, at the auditorium’s opening last week. The title honors the shields above the school’s front gates that look out onto NE 125th Street.
Cing and three classmates read and reenacted parts of the story from the freshly renovated stage. Cing played the school, Kiana Rivera played Layla, Kaylah Jean-Baptiste played Jose and Milinda Florvela narrated.
“The importance of the book is the bonding between Jesus, Layla and the school,” said Kiana, 10. “I didn’t really know anything about the school before this. Through writing about this bonding, we were able to bond with the school ourselves.”
The fifth graders were dressed in roaring ‘20s garb — sequined headbands, feathers and pearls for Cing, Kiana and Milinda, and a fedora, tie and high-top Nikes for Kaylah.
“Think about the last time someone performed on this stage,” said Hugh Ryan, the contractor that renovated the auditorium. “I get just as excited about it as the kids do.”
The 2,600-square-foot auditorium was used as a performing and gallery space into the 1970s, until the population of the school exceeded capacity. The auditorium became four classrooms, including the stage.
The renovation back into a space for the arts was a three-year, $50,000 process. Principal Milagros Maytin-Miret said although Wolfson’s ideas are a lot of time, effort and money, “the work she gets out of our students is worth it.”
Next on Wolfson’s to-do list: replace the ’70s vinyl chairs with ’20s-styled wooden seating. She said her goal is to maintain the building’s unique aesthetics and integrity.
“If you surround people with beautiful buildings, they’ll aspire to be better people,” she said. “That’s what we’ve done here.”
Donors from Dade Heritage Trust, The Villagers, Inc., Lowe’s and Home Depot attended the opening of the auditorium named The Village Gallery.
The Villagers granted the program $8,800 in 2013 for the auditorium’s renovation, and $5,000 in 2014. A $1,000 of the latter grant will fund the publication of the students’ book.
“The school is a wonderful partner and does a great job instilling historical and architectural values in the kids,” said Becky Roper Matkov of Dade Heritage Trust and The Villagers, Inc. “To see the enthusiasm students have in their school, history and architecture is so gratifying.”
One hundred copies of the book will be printed and available to anyone for $20 each by April 1. Wolfson said the money from the sales will go directly into the magnet program to fund future class projects.
As for Cing, she is already writing page 16 of her next book.
“I’ve learned that I enjoy writing books. That’s what I want to do,” Cing said, “but if that doesn’t work out, I also learned to put passion into everything I do.”