Guests were ushered into a room filled with Nintendo Game Boys, typewriters and guitars by two students who dressed up as Daisy Buchanan (the love interest from “The Great Gatsby”) and rocker Elvis Presley. A cappella singers belted out the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” against a backdrop of a 1968 Ford Mustang and 1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.
Welcome to the Museum of the American Teenager.
Unveiled on May 20, the exhibition at New Community Jewish High School explored what has defined the American teenager over the past 11 decades. It was the result of a yearlong effort by the entire 11th-grade class.
“We realized teenagers are interesting to teenagers and went from there,” said Jaimi Boehm, the school’s English department chair who directed the project with history department chair Matthew Vacca. “It seemed like there would be a really natural overlap there in terms of getting them to be able to use their skills and all of the content they were learning and apply it toward something in a really meaningful way.”
Vacca added: “Basically, we wanted the kids to hone skills that they’re going to use in the real world beyond just regular humdrum history or English work, have them do something that’s relevant to their lives and, hopefully, something that will stick with them and last outside of their graduation.”
Artifacts and placards decorated the lobby of the main campus building in West Hills in an arrangement that told the story of the American teenager. Items ranging from 1900 to 2014 filled the shelves and the floor space to present how this concept has evolved throughout the past century. A vintage Beatles concert poster sat in front of clippings of Life magazine from the mid-20th century on one wall. Arranged in a row, four old-fashioned bicycles with large wheels and handlebars were next to the modern version. Black-and-white yearbooks sat open on bookshelves, offering a glimpse at retro hairstyles.
All 89 members of the 11th grade contributed to the exhibition, which ended May 23. Students spent the last nine months researching the history of the decades and soliciting artifacts from community members. Vacca and Boehm set up parameters at the start of the project, and the students went from there.
“At first they hated this idea. Hated it,” Vacca said. “We heard so much griping and groaning about it early on.”
That all changed as the project started taking shape.
“One of the main things I think all of us learned was working together as a team and the leadership that was needed to fulfill the whole museum,” said Noah Emanuel, a junior class project leader, who had a big role in curating the museum as well as in writing the placards.
Edan Evenhaim took on a different role, comparing Israeli and American teens. He was pleased with the results.
“It’s a great success, especially for a first-year thing. Just looking at it, it’s really beautiful. The history is there, the artifacts are there, a lot of things are there,” Evenhaim said. “It’s a phenomenal outcome.”
Parents like Carolyn Reznik-Camras called it a great example of outside-the-box education.
“This is extraordinary, not just [as] an event, but [also as] a year of educational excellence for these teams who put their hearts and souls into putting this together,” she said. “To have English, history, Judaic studies [and the] arts all come together and an entire class supported by such creative faculty to let them learn outside the classroom and bring real life to them so they could live it and get a glimpse into the past and the present is absolutely extraordinary.”
The project-based learning model put students in charge of the entire museum production.
“This is unique in the United States of America,” said Bruce Powell, head of school. “It’s the way education should be. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s embracing, it’s interactive, and the kids will never forget their history over the last 114 years.”
The joint English/history assignment helped the students — who were assigned specific decades to research — gain a greater understanding of the past and present, according to student project leader Carmelle Dagmi.
“I’ve enjoyed learning and being able to see how different yet the same the generations are,” she said. “Even though the way the teens act through the years is the same, it’s with different technology or different hobbies.”
Whether it was a jukebox that would play music for a quarter or a laptop computer with iTunes, nostalgia was inevitable for those who attended the opening. Every object in the room sparked some recollection of the past and reminder of the present.
It may not have been easy making it happen, but after nine months of research it paid off, Vacca said.
“It’s been a wild ride, but it’s been totally worth it at the end of the day.”