Digest>Archives> June 2005

Light Night Goes Out with a Big Bang

By Jeremy D'Entremont

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Jan McManus and some of her students on Light ...

When the snow banks have dwindled and the robins are once again plentiful on the New Hampshire Seacoast, everyone knows it must be time for Light Night. This past March 31, for the fifth consecutive year, families and friends packed into the cafeteria at the Dondero Elementary School in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to see Jan McManus's fourth grade students show off the fruits of their eight-week lighthouse project. The 2005 Light Night celebration, the biggest ever, marked the close of a popular local tradition.

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Past and present students of Jan McManus sang ...

Teacher Jan McManus is an avid sailor originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts. She originated the lighthouse curriculum largely because of her love for the sea and maritime history. As the project developed, it became apparent that teaching kids about lighthouses could encompass a variety of subjects besides history, such as art, science, and music.

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Each student in the class chose a New England lighthouse, then built a model of the lighthouse and wrote a report on its history. The models were built under the supervision of art teacher Sara Harrod. Materials used included cardboard tubes from paper towels, plastic drink bottles, and papier-maché. The students' ingenuity can easily be seen in their choices of materials.

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One girl, Jessi Jones, created a model of Maine's Owls Head Lighthouse. That short and stocky lighthouse has an especially large lantern, so Jessi used a clear plastic cover she saved from an ice cream treat from Friendly's. The models were finished with the addition of plastic seagulls, flags, clay figures, and real stones and seashells. Some used cotton to represent snow or smoke coming from chimneys.

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Carter Provost, who created a model of Maine's popular Cape Neddick “Nubble” Light, included a representation of the bucket that was once used to transport supplies from the mainland for the keepers. In the bucket, he placed a small clay figure representing the son of a Coast Guardsman who was sent to school via the bucket in the 1960s. And Jimmy Gonsalves, whose lighthouse was Beavertail in Rhode Island, even included a little auxiliary light mounted outside the lantern room, just like the real thing.

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The history reports were compiled using information from various websites and books. As each student read his report in front of the audience on Light Night, a Powerpoint presentation produced by Ricky Holt with the assistance of Linda George, technology integration specialist for the Dondero School, was being shown. Photos of each lighthouse were seen on a large screen near the students. McManus said that George went “above and beyond” in the help she gave the kids, as she has every year.

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Through the course of the lighthouse project, the students also learned about an educational approach called “Habits of Mind,” which researchers believe can help teach the brain to solve problems. These habits include perseverance, flexibility, asking questions, using precise language, managing impulsivity, sense of humor, metacognition (thinking about a project even when you're not working on it), creativity, and wonderment. These habits, properly learned, will serve the students well for their whole lives.

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After the reading of the reports, the students all stood on stage and were accompanied by music teacher Diane McGee on piano for the singing of McGee's original song, “The Lighthouse.” This year, the performance of the song was made even more special by the presence of 43 students who had taken part in Jan McManus's lighthouse curriculum in previous years.

This year was special in other ways as well. The entire Light Night program was dedicated to the memory of Connie Small, the Portsmouth resident and author of the book The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife, who died early this year at the age of 103. One of the students, Erin Lent, delivered a presentation about Connie. In 2001, at a 100th birthday celebration for Connie held by the American Lighthouse Foundation, Jan McManus's class had sung “The Lighthouse” in her honor.

Certificates honoring some of the adults involved with Light Night were presented on behalf of the American Lighthouse Foundation. When Jan McManus received her certificate, she got a well-deserved standing ovation from the approximately 200 people in attendance.

The models were wired to light up like the real thing. As always, the climax of the evening came when the lights were turned off and everybody counted down from 10. At the moment everyone shouted, “3, 2, 1 - LIGHT NIGHT,” all the little lighthouse lights were illuminated in unison.

Jan McManus says the project has gotten too big and time intensive, and that she doesn't want to take too much time away from other subjects. But just because there will be no more Light Nights doesn't mean she'll stop teaching about lighthouses. She also says she's thinking about taking the curriculum “on the road” in the future. This is wonderful news for kids in the region and for the future of lighthouse preservation.

Congratulations to all the students and adults who have played a role in the five great years of this program.

This story appeared in the June 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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