Living History

Vartan Gregorian's annual I Was There project


Immigration and neighborhood life. Narragansett Bay. Work in the Jewelry District. These are the themes of I Was There, an annual project at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point, a Providence public school built in 1951 and located on Wickenden Street in the heart of the Fox Point neighborhood. I Was There connects Vartan Gregorian Elementary School’s students and teachers with Fox Point community members, historians, storytellers, scientists, business and industry representatives, public officials, artists and chefs. Together, they all take a deep dive into topics that bring the community together as learners who create content that is displayed all over the walls of the school and shared online.

This year, Vartan Gregorian’s fourth and fifth graders are learning about the role of food in the neighborhood’s families, cultures and memories. “Placebased multidimensional education” best describes I Was There, which provides an arena for students to use resources throughout the entire neighborhood to learn about where they are, how history has evolved and what matters in their lives now. They learn oral history skills – taught first to their teachers by staff members and graduate students from Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage – to interview Fox Point residents and professionals. They go on field trips, this year to Johnson and Wales’ Culinary Arts Museum. They learn about food scientifically, studying taste, refrigeration and sanitation. They incorporate standards-based learning from across the rest of the curriculum to create a final presentation and add to a living museum in the school, for which they serve as trained docents. They create content for the I Was There website. The project provides multiple avenues for students to be historians, archivists, writers, photographers, videographers, event planners and artists. Every Vartan Gregorian fourth and fifth grader learns, develops skills and makes a lasting contribution to their school and its neighborhood.

In collaboration with teachers and the principal, Vartan Gregorian parents Wendy Grossman and Catherine Carr Kelly started I Was There in 2008. Grossman and Kelly wanted to know more about the neighborhood where their kids were going to school and felt that the school urgently needed more arts education in the curriculum. “We thought that there should be some way to honor the school itself, the neighborhood and the past,” said Kelly, the executive director of the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. “We wanted to know what had made
the neighborhood important,” added Grossman, an activities therapist at Butler Hospital. To support and sustain I Was There, Grossman and Kelly have secured funding from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the Rhode Island Foundation, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and VSA Arts, which funds arts and humanities projects for people with disabilities (the project fully includes all fourth and fifth graders with learning and other disabilities at the school).

Vartan Gregorian Elementary’s fourth and fifth grade teachers say that I Was There is powerful for them professionally, reporting extraordinary engagement among their students and an appreciation for the professional development opportunities that result from the connection to the John Nicholas Brown Center. They also appreciate the ways that I Was There reinforced the role of the school as the center of the neighborhood. As special education teacher Maureen Kenner described, “People in this area were forward-thinking. Where the school is now had been a park. The neighbors wanted to preserve green space and advocated that the school keep that sense of place with a courtyard, which still has a beech tree that connects the past to the present.”

Fifth grade teacher Jacqueline Fish observed that I Was There created a unique opportunity for experiential learning fused with critical thinking. “One of the best aspects of this project is that our students learn how to ask real, deep, meaningful questions,” Fish commented. Fourth grade teacher Eileen Pedroso Afonso agreed, noting, “This isn’t a textbook. It’s living history through talking with community members - our students learn through conversation.” Pedroso Afonso grew up in Fox Point herself and has brought family and community members to the school to be a part of the project over the years. “Every year, people want to come back. They’re excited to be a part of the history that our students are documenting and sharing.”

This spring, I Was There will culminate with an exhibition and presentation open to the public on Thursday May 3, 6-8pm. Students and community members will share memoirs, cookbooks, photos, poems and more at a community dinner and other events. They hope you’ll join in.

Jill Davidson can be reached at or her blog,