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Memories of the Madera Method—a birthday present

For The Madera Tribune

The sixth grade class at Howard School is shown here in 1985, after they completed their class project, The Minturn Chronicles.


Thirty-eight years ago the sixth grade class at Howard School shook their teacher from his dogmatic slumbers. They conducted an educational experiment that is reverberating yet today. They conducted a research project, published a book, and started a movement that got the attention of educators from across the nation as well as the admiration of America’s renowned biographical novelist, Irving Stone.

What they set in motion was an educational innovation, which Stone named “The Madera Method,” and it is still having its impact today.

It all started when the late Ed Gwartney took this writer out to the Chowchilla River and showed him three old tombstones on its banks. They were the final resting places of Jonas, Rowland, and Abby Minturn, all of whom were born and died in the 19th century.

I was struck immediately by the epitaph on Abby’s tombstone (She turned out to be the matriarch of the family). It read, “Her children will arise and call her blessed.”

That tombstone continued to “haunt” me, so I began to make inquiry about the family. Who were they? Where did they come from? What was their story? I asked everyone I knew, but nobody had any answers. The whole town knew the graves were out there, but nobody knew who they really were. Then an idea struck.

Could my Howard School sixth graders find the answers to my questions? Could we turn this into a history/language arts project? How much about authentic research could these 12-year-olds learn, and what could they do with it? That’s how it all began.

We put out a call for help, and got an offer to assist from Madera’s highly respected genealogist, Audrey Pool. With Audrey’s help, we all went on a search, and every document we found went on our classroom wall. By springtime, the walls and the ceilings were covered.

The end of the project came when we decided to write a book about Abby Minturn. She was the heroine; she held the family together. We named the book “The Minturn Chronicles.” It took the form of a fictional diary that Abby could have written. Each entry was based on the solid facts of the students’ research.

We wrote; we edited, and Irving Stone wrote the forward. Finally, we were done. However, it wasn’t enough. We had to say goodbye to Abby, so we prepared the old cemetery for a celebration.

On June 5, 1985, more than 400 people gathered out there on the banks of the Chowchilla River. Abby’s great granddaughter, her great-great grandchildren, and her great-great-great grand children joined us. They had never been there before.

One at a time the kids came to the portable microphone and told what it was like to be Abby during the various segments of her life. The flags flew; the bugler played Taps, and the teacher cried.

We carried our celebration back to school, and Irving and Jean Stone came to Madera a few weeks later to spend the weekend with the kids who had become known as the “Minturn Scholars.” Then six years later, we held a reunion in the Madera High School library. Mrs. Irving Stone had come to see them (He had passed away). Then we all went our separate ways.

I took what these kids had taught me and did the best I could with it. Every year my classes had a project, and each year we linked up with classes in other states (once we even partnered with a class from Hermosillo, Mexico). Everywhere I went, I told folks about the Minturn Scholars and their Madera Method. It was infectious.

They are all grown up now. Wow, they must be in their mid-forties. And me, I’m 82 today. I’m kinda retired — mostly all memories — and among the sweetest of my reveries are those Minturn Scholars. It’s a neat birthday present.

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