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In search of the Minturn Scholars

Madera County Historical Society

The Minturn Scholars are shown here in this 1985 Tribune photo taken at Howard School.


It has been 33 years since a sixth grade class at Howard School dug up some local history in a year-long project that made national news.

Now, Madera Unified School District is planning to honor these “kids,” most of whom are in their mid-forties, in a special tribute to the contribution they made to education.

The Minturn Scholars, as they came to be known, were an extraordinary group of 6th graders who, when challenged, broke down the fences separating English, spelling, writing, and history. They learned the art of thinking on to new ideas based upon ideas already conceived. It’s called inferring or critical thinking, and they were masters at it. That’s what made them scholars.

It all started when they were taken to the banks of the Chowchilla River to visit three old, forgotten graves, the final resting place of the Minturn family. The class was piqued because so little was known about the Minturns, so they decided to research their lives and write their story. They got a lot of genealogy help from Audrey Pool, and the result was The Minturn Chronicles.

Associated Press took the story nationwide, and author Irving Stone came to town to meet these 6th graders who had somehow gotten into his “backyard.” He gave the project a name; he called it The Madera Method, and it stuck. Over the years, 20 more Madera Method projects emerged from our local cemeteries, and the Madera Method Wagon Train began to roll. Stone called it “pure elixir,” and he and his wife, Jean, supported the movement until their deaths.

The Madera Method was exported to other cities across the country. Madera kids did projects with students in Bristol, Rhode Island; Bay City, Austin, El Paso, and Huntsville, Texas; Tucson, Arizona; Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico; Raleigh, North Carolina; Greenville, Mississippi; Hannibal, Missouri; Kentfield, Salida; and Fresno, California.

One could almost call it a revolution, and you know what they do to revolutionaries. The Accountability Reform Movement — at both the state and federal levels — regimented classroom instruction to such an extent that at one time elementary teachers in Madera couldn’t even have 20 minutes of “sustained silent reading” in their classrooms.

As a 6th grade teacher in Madera Unified, I resisted as long as I could. I finally retired and went to a Fresno charter school to teach history.

In time of course, the regimentation with its API and AYP scores fell in on itself, and project based learning got another chance. That’s why the school district is looking for the Minturn Scholars.

Superintendent Todd Lile wants to breathe new life into the Madera Method. The board has authorized the construction of a Madera Method Archive in the library of Madera South High School as well as an online Madera Method Archive. The idea is to provide primary document resources for teachers who want to involve their classes in original historical research.

The collection is already pretty hefty with letters, diaries, photographs, newspapers, and public documents, and more is being sought. Meanwhile, Lile wants to officially open the Madera Method Archive by honoring that 6th grade class from Howard School, without whom there would be no Madera Method. He wants to hold a ribbon cutting ceremony, and he wants the Minturn Scholars to be there.

The time and date have been set: 4:30 p.m. May 30 in the MSHS library.

What a reunion that is going to be. Word has it that the Scholars are gathering from all over. Some who are coming, live hundreds of miles away.

I think they are really going to be surprised when they get here. I doubt that they fully realize just how significant their work in 1984-85 was.

Well, when they get here we can show them, and I will get a chance to say thank you to a group of “kids” who forever changed my life — Madera’s Minturn Scholars.

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