Witness Stones Will Expand to New Schools, Adds New Collaborations
Stones honoring Phillis and Montros placed in front of the Guilford Savings Bank on the green as part of the second annual Witness Stones installation ceremony in 2018 are one example of the work done by the Witness Stones project. (File photo by Susan Lambert/The Courier)
The Witness Stones Project, Inc, which had already seen significant expansion since retired Guilford social studies teacher Dennis Culliton and therapist Doug Nygren launched it in 2019, is set to grow even more in 2021 as conversations around Black Lives Matter protests last year have opened up even more avenues for the project to expand its reach.
Along with offering its curriculum to around a dozen new schools from New Jersey to Massachusetts, Culliton told the Courier that Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) is planning to give Witness Stones a permanent physical location at the school and access to significant academic resources, and the project is additionally partnering with historical societies and museums to reach a huge new audience.
“People realize they can’t put this off—they can’t put off dealing with the racism and inequalities and issues around Black Lives Matter until the pandemic is over,” Culliton said. “Our society has got some major issues, and while we’re dealing with one issue we can’t let the patient bleed to death.”
The Witness Stones Project seeks to teach people (usually middle and high school students) about an enslaved person from their town using primary sources like deeds, wills, and letters, and culminates in the installation of a marker somewhere where that person “lived, worked, or prayed.” Culliton said that the philosophy of the Witness Stones—honoring, humanizing, and educating about Black American history—has clearly been recognized by a multitude of organizations as vital to their educational efforts.
Operated mostly by Culliton himself with the assistance of a board of directors, this expansion doesn’t necessarily mean the Witness Stones needs to hire a bunch of new teachers or staff, Culliton said. Historical societies, churches, and other academics are now investing the time and energy to learn about their own histories regarding race and slavery, which means Culliton can simply work to apply the project’s principles to each individual community.
“There are many better researchers than me, but what Witness Stones brings to the table is the ability to analyze the research and make it available to middle schoolers and high schoolers. That’s our big value added, and doing it in a way that’s appropriate with all the standards...that teachers need,” he said.
But “scaling up” the project is a sign that across the state (and beyond), people are more willing, more aware, and more dedicated to Witness Stones’ mission: learning the kind of history that has often been erased.
Each individual community has its own difficult history around race. Culliton noted schools that were opened for Black children and were subsequently burned down, ordinances enacted to curb the political power of Black voters, and race riots, all taking place in Connecticut.
Culliton said that summer workshops, with multiple school districts gathering together to begin implementing the curriculum, is one opportunity. Because CCSU is central to a lot of state curriculum decisions, Culliton and the Witness Stones will be able to leverage their new partnership there to begin a deeper re-examining of what is and isn’t taught in every district in Connecticut as it relates to race and slavery.
“They love the fact that we’re bringing this new way of learning history to the school that teaches a lot of history teachers in the state and is involved in state curriculum and is involved with the Connecticut Council of Social studies,” Culltion said. “Literally the state curriculum comes through them...by partnering with them, it expands both the depth of what we’re doing and the reach of what we can do.”
Culliton himself was involved in the recent decision to have every district offer Latino and African-American studies classes as electives in every high school in the state, with Connecticut being the first state to take this step, though Culliton said he still thinks schools can go further.
“We know best practices would require we start teaching about African-American history systematically, in the elementary school, the lower middle school, upper middle school, and throughout,” he said.
Culliton said one of the stories of an enslaved woman in Guilford uncovered by the Witness Stones is currently being developed by board members into a children’s book, targeted at 3rd- or 4th-graders.
That kind of “spiral curriculum” concept, which seeks to embed these ideas into every class and grade, is the process that will eventually bring school curriculum to encompass these ideas and really offer students a more complete idea about race in the United States.
Outside of schools, Culliton said that museums and historical societies are hoping to incorporate these ideas into their adult-oriented programs. Deerfield, Massachusetts, which Culliton said has some of the most respected and oldest museums in the region, is working to incorporate Witness Stones ideas and research into its presentations or exhibits.
That opens up even more avenues, Culliton said, and many of these museums also bring in classes of school-age children to visit and view these exhibits. He has previously run workshops at local libraries for adults with a modified version of the Witness Stones program.
Culliton offered thanks to all the organizations that have supported Witness Stones in Guilford, as well as Guilford Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Freeman for being open and supportive of the program. He also emphasized that it is the grass roots activism of Black Lives Matter and broader conversations about racial justice, including students and young people seeking out their own answers about race and history, that has made the expansion of Witness Stones possible.
“I think teachers were shy,” Culliton said. “They’re less shy [now] because it’s right there, and the kids are seeing it and hearing it, and they want to know why this is all new to them.”