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Charles City eighth-graders prepare to debut historical biography project

Charles City eighth-graders prepare to debut historical biography project
The Charles City eighth-grade project, “The Untold Stories of Riverside Cemetery,” has scores of videos researched and produced by the students which tell the stories of more than 90 of the people who are buried there. QR codes mounted on metal spikes near the graves will take cellphones to the YouTube video about the person. The site is at Submitted photo
Charles City eighth-graders prepare to debut historical biography project
Eighth-grader Jonah DeVore’s voice can be heard narrating several of the biographies that will be available for viewing at Riverside Cemetery next week. Photo by Travis Fischer
By Travis Fischer,

Charles City eighth-graders are getting ready to bring new life to Riverside Cemetery.

Since 2017, the cemetery managers have collaborated with each year’s middle school students to encourage an interest in learning about the history of Charles City and the people that made it. The partnership has been fruitful, encouraging young students with an interest in local history while also supporting the cemetery through a range of volunteer projects, raising funds for plaques for unmarked graves or renovations to the chapel.

“It does make a good classroom,” said historian Jeff Sisson, who leads the St. Charles Cemetery Association. “I could see the eighth-grade kids were interested in stories. With over 12,000 people buried out there, you’re bound to get some interesting stories.”

Charles City eighth-graders prepare to debut historical biography project
Eighth-grade teacher Melanie Van Soelen is eager to see Riverside Cemetery get marked with QR codes leading to biographical information created by her students. Photo by Travis Fischer

“Jeff’s desire has always been to make Riverside a place where people can go and learn,” said social studies teacher Ryan Rahmiller, who initiated the ongoing partnership between the school and the cemetery after taking one of his classes out for a field trip.

For all the work that Charles City eighth-graders have put into the cemetery over the years, a new project is taking their efforts to the next level with “The Untold Stories of Riverside Cemetery.”

Starting next week, about 90 graves around the cemetery will be marked with metal stakes that display a QR code. Pointing a smartphone camera at the code will take the phone to a YouTube video written and edited by the class, featuring a short biography on the person buried there.

“When you scan it, you should see the video they created,” said language arts teacher Melanie Van Soelen, who collaborated with Rahmiller and Sisson for the class project.

“It’s been a phenomenal project,” said Rahmiller. “I think it’s a project that just kind of speaks to our kids in general.”

Selecting denizens of the cemetery born before 1890, the students were tasked with researching and reporting on the life and times of some of Charles City’s most impactful citizens, utilizing everything from local historical resources to

“They time-lined the person’s life and then wrote that person’s biography,” said Van Soelen.

“It was really cool,” said eighth-grader Jonah DeVore, who researched and wrote a biography on the first pastor of his church. “Just learning about the person was extremely cool.”

Beyond serving as a lesson in local history, the project also put the student’s multimedia skills to the test. From writing scripts in a way they could be easily narrated to collecting video and images to go along with the spoken biography, the students had to utilize a wide range of the skills they’ve honed from growing up in the age of Facebook and TikTok.

“They’re super savvy about that,” said Van Soelen. “This is what eighth-graders do. They make videos and edit them.”

While the current eighth grade class was the spearhead of the project, they weren’t the only students to contribute. Welding teacher Dan Bohlen’s class of students were the ones who made the metal stakes that present the QR codes.

“They have done a lot of work to get those done for our open house,” said Van Soelen. “They have been a huge help.”

The eighth-graders have been working on this project since January and are eager to finally see their work go live.

On Monday, May 15, from noon to 2 p.m. the eighth grade students will be at the cemetery to discuss the subjects of their research and demonstrate how the new video biographies work.

“Anyone that wants to can come out and see the QR codes with their phone,” said Van Soelen. “If anybody needs help, the students will be out there to help them.”

With more than 12,000 people buried at Riverside Cemetery there will be no shortage of biographies for future eighth-graders to produce. The people involved said they are excited to see the program expand both as a way to encourage more visitors to the cemetery and to honor the people buried there.

“It’s been a privilege to work with the school,” said Sisson.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg I think,” said Van Soelen.

For the current eighth-grade class, they are eager to see their hard work completed, making a lasting mark on the cemetery that future classes can build on.

“It’s a very historical place,” said DeVore. “It’s a very good place of learning that we want to help for generations to come.”

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