LOS ANGELES | The best Christmas present filmmaker Ken Burns ever got wasn’t something he could unwrap.
Instead, it came on a snowy morning after his two daughters had worked their way through a pile of presents. After a moment of awkward silence, Sarah, then 12, stood and flawlessly recited the Gettysburg Address.
“I wept,” Burns says now, several decades later. “It was the first or second year I was a single dad and I was trying so hard to buy them dresses and clothes and toys. And then there was this final present for me. I can start crying just talking about it.”
Lincoln’s short but effective Civil War speech has been a touchstone throughout the documentarian’s storied life. It factored into his Emmy-winning series, “Civil War.” It stands today as one of the most important addresses ever given.
And, yes, it pops up from time to time when Burns speaks to school groups. More than a decade ago, he was invited to the Greenwood School, a “learning different” institution in Putney, Vt., to judge its oratory competition.
There, students presented Lincoln’s speech before a group of friends and family. Each was expected to memorize the work and deliver it without mistakes. The tradition continues even today.
“It’s chosen because it’s important to all of us,” Burns says. “It’s complicated. It represents a minefield and yet it’s also manageable.”
Students – who have dyslexia, dysgraphia, speech impediments and other learning challenges -- spend months dissecting what it says, learning its nuances and mustering the courage to recite it in front of others.
“It’s all part of the pedagogy of communicating this,” Burns says.
School officials have been doing “the address” for years. Conversely, public schools don’t require that level of memorization. “I was never made to learn it,” the 60-year-old Burns says. “In the 1950s and ‘60s, there was this theory that somehow rote memorization was bad for kids. They had to learn relevance. What happened was we lost touch with all of education.”
Every year that Burns returned to Greenwood to speak – or judge or visit – he insisted someone should film the learning process. He couldn’t do it because he did “historical documentaries.” Then, “finally, I said, I’m just going to do it.”
With a barebones crew, Burns and company detailed the months-long process, living with the boys while they struggled with Lincoln’s words. “We shot 300-plus hours for (a film that’s) an hour and 20 minutes.”
Called “The Address,” the film shows what’s right with education, what teaching can do.
“We like to think of ourselves as celebrating difference but we don’t,” Burns says. “We celebrate conformity.
“When people don’t live up to conformity – particularly at school age – we’re belying our own fundamental principles.”
While most students complete the task – and get the coveted Greenville coin – it’s not mandatory. Those who’ve already succeeded can present a different speech. And, as the film shows, the process gives them a great feeling of accomplishment.
Although winners are named in the contest, Burns avoids singling them out. Instead, he uses several students – with various levels of struggle – to narrate the film.
To keep the challenge going, Burns and company have created a website – learntheaddress.org – where others can post videos of their success memorizing the address. Already, all living presidents, a number of celebrities, politicians and athletes have posted their work.
Burns is on there, too.
“The Address” (which airs April 15 on PBS) could be just the inspiration students, parents and others need to go back to basics and try something different.
All-too-often, Burns says, documentaries make an observation: “Here’s a big problem…. This doesn’t necessarily offer solutions. But it does reveal a human dynamic that will overcome this.”
“Learning different” students can accomplish great things, he says. “The Fortune 500 is filled with a disproportionate number of CEOs who have some learning differences. The strategies they’ve had to adopt are just differences. They’re not disabilities.”
And the documentary? It’s not an advertisement for the Greenwood School. It’s a look at a simple teaching method that has gotten great results.
With “The Address,” Burns says, “We’re celebrating that which beats inside all of us.”