PUTNEY -- Ken Burns first visited the Greenwood School about 10 years ago after the school contacted the award-winning director and producer about its tradition of having its students recite the Gettysburg Address.
Burns, who is based in Walpole, N.H., is well known for his 10-hour PBS documentary on the Civil War and Greenwood invited Burns up to the Putney campus to watch its students recite President Abraham Lincoln's famous speech, which the President delivered on Nov. 19, 1863, four-and-a-half months after the Civil War ended.
Greenwood School is a small, private boarding and day school for boys in grades six through 12 with learning disabilities, and from that very first day, Burns said, he sensed that there was a bigger story to tell.
"From that first time I walked onto the campus I told myself that there was a film here," Burns said. "I fell in love with the kids, and with the process, and with everything they were doing at Greenwood. I finally decided it was time to do this."
Greenwood School students have been giving the Gettysburg Address since the school was founded in 1978, and for the boys it is a rite of passage.
For the students, who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities and learning differences including dyslexia, ADHD, and other language-based learning disabilities, memorizing the speech and then reciting it in front of a roomful of people turns out to be a transformative experience.
After thinking about the possibilities of filming on the Greenwood campus for a number of years Burns decided this year to document some of the students' work as they prepared for their speeches
Burns said there are connections between what President Lincoln was saying in his speech about the country after the Civil War and what the Greenwood boys are experiencing at this point in their lives.
The messages of perseverance and unity and of dedicating oneself to a greater struggle, Burns said, hold lessons for what the Greenwood students work through to be able to stand in front of an audience and speak.
And for Burns, the Greenwood film represents a change in the style of filmmaking on which he has built a career.
Burns has produced films by looking at big themes in the country such as the Civil War, baseball, jazz music, and prohibition, and then bringing in experts to remark on those stories.
The Greenwood film, which was done in the cinéma vérité method, put Florentine Films camera operators down on the ground with the Greenwood students and staff.
Burns said he is excited, at this point in his career, to take on a new project like this.
"It is inspiring to see how these boys struggle, and work through the challenges they have," Burns said. "No one on the staff who has seen the footage has come away unmoved."
Burns hopes to have the film finished by the end of 2013, and then hopes to take it around to film festivals in time for the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address.
A Florentine Film crew embedded itself in the school for almost three months, following the students as they worked on their speeches and documenting their challenges, frustrations and victories as they mastered Lincoln's famous speech.
Greenwood School Headmaster Stewart Miller said the film crew wove itself into the day-to-day life on the campus, gaining the trust of the students and staff.
For some of the students it was not easy having a camera around as they were struggling through lessons, but Miller says the camera crew was able to develop relationships with the students, and eventually the students, and staff, became comfortable with the visitors.
Miller agreed with Burns that the recitations of the Gettysburg Address represent so much more than just memorizing words on a sheet of paper.
The students gave their speeches on Feb. 15 this year.
"Once you memorize a speech like this, you own it. It is in your heart and it remains a part of you forever," said Miller. "We have alum who come back years and years later who can still recite it and who say how important it has been in their lives."
Miller told the story of one Greenwood graduate who does public speaking as part of his job, and to this day he recites the Gettysburg Address to himself before getting up in front of an audience.
Every student is expected to give the speech at some point during their time at Greenwood.
Students arrive at Greenwood at different points in their school career, and for some it takes a few years to memorize the speech.
Others are able to do it their first year.
Miller says each student has his own challenges to get through, and those are the stories that Burns wanted to document when he decided to make the film.
"It is not an easy speech to memorize, and some of our students really have to dig deep and find the strength to pull it off," Miller said. "There is huge emotional value in doing something like this. It becomes a reference point in their lives."
And when each one does ultimately get up in front of that audience, Miller says, it represents a milestone in their Greenwood education.
"Our students have language-based learning issues and it takes a lot of courage for them to push through those fears and talk in front of 250 people," said Miller. "It helps them set a goal, and that helps in life when you can keep on a path and not waiver even when you think that you can't do it."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.