MARQUETTE – Directors of Aspen Ridge Middle School’s award-winning Red Dust History Day project have donated materials to the Northern Michigan University Archives. The collection includes an estimated 1,000 transcribed interviews with area residents, History Day documentaries, and Red Dust books written and illustrated by students, which span the years 1983-2000.

“This is an enormously rich resource – not only for the documentation of local history, but as an example of teaching originality and excellence,” said Marcus Robyns, NMU archivist. “It is double the size of our existing oral history repository and is an incredibly valuable tool for genealogical and cultural research.”

Red Dust originated in 1983. Students brainstormed potential names for their project and selected one that would symbolize the iron ore heritage of the schoolÂ’s original National Mine location. The middle school participated in National History Day competition for 15 years. They explored a variety of topics that have strong local ties but also national significance.

For the theme “Triumph and Tragedy in History,” students presented a local perspective of the polio epidemic. They interviewed residents directly impacted by the disease. They also discovered that a local resident and engineer, Maxwell Reynolds, designed an original wooden iron lung to fill increased demand for such devices during the U.P. outbreak. The apparatus was stored in Marquette, so students were able to see an important historical artifact and incorporate it into their project. The effort garnered a first-place finish in national competition for History Day.

Red Dust has also received numerous awards at the state-level competition and has been honored by Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association of educators. The book received special recognition from the National Council for Teachers of English. A sampling of other topics covered over the years includes war veterans, schools that comprise the NICE district and underground mining.

 Â“Our goal in starting this program was to help students develop a sense of identity, which is so critical during the middle school years,” said Maxine Honkala, Aspen Ridge principal. “We also wanted them to be proud of where they are from. Red Dust was an integrated, project-based approach to learning long before those words were popular in education. We were considered pioneers, but it has stood the test of time.”

Honkala, whose experience is in history, joined forces with language arts teacher Sharon Richards and the late art teacher Bobbi Ameen. The trio developed an interdisciplinary project that involves historical research and personal interviews. Students transcribe the interviews and wrote stories. A committee composed of teachers, administrators and community members selected the most interesting accounts for publication. The text of each booklet is complemented by relevant historical photographs, as well as student pen-and-ink drawings.

“It really gives students a sense of accomplishment because they have an opportunity to engage in extensive research and become published authors and illustrators,” Richards said. “How many of their peers elsewhere can say that?”

Driven by the success of Red Dust, Honkala and Richards will teach a course this summer at NMU on using oneÂ’s community as a sense of place. Both graduated from the university.

“The main reason we decided to donate these materials is that Northern is our alma mater and we wanted to give back in some way,” Honkala said. “Our hope is that this material might help other educators do this type of local history and put it in the larger context of American or world history.”

Richards added: “We also hope that the transcripts will be of some personal and sentimental value to relatives of those interviewed. I know that when my mother died suddenly, I was grateful to have the opportunity to read through the interview she had done with a student. It is nice to know her transcript will be stored and accessible for many years to come. This collection might have the same effect on others.”

After accessioning the Red Dust project materials for the NMU Archives, Robyns plans to put them to immediate use researching the 1946 iron miners’ strike. “I have been trying to find source material from people who worked underground,” he added.

For more information on the Red Dust collection, contact Robyns at 227-1225.

Prepared By
Kristi Evans
News Director