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Connecting Students to Their Past: A World War I Project

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Voice of Experience

With so few veterans of World War I alive today, who will share their stories; who will make sure the world remembers? This week, educator Brenda Dyck explains how primary and secondary resources became a vehicle for connecting her students to some of history's most important lessons. Included: Resources for bringing to life the events and people behind the "war to end all wars."

Time is running out. Last month, Charles Reaper, one of the last surviving infantry veterans of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, died at the age of 103. With so few veterans of World War I still alive, who will share their stories? Who will help the next generation remember?

As I search for an answer that question, I am reminded of a poignant scene from the movie Dead Poet's Society. Teacher John Keating has brought his class to a museum-like picture gallery containing the dusty images of students long since departed from the school. In a husky voice he whispers:

"They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you; their eyes are full of hope, just like you If you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. You hear it?"

I believe the key to successfully passing on lessons learned in war resides in John Keating's words, and in our ability as teachers to point our students toward the faces and voices of the past. Those faces and voices, applied to a study of World War I, provide a dramatic and powerful way to bring that time period to life for our students. The soldiers' voices enable students to see those brave men as the sons, husbands, fathers, and friends that they were. Hearing the voices, reading about the losses their families and their countries experienced, and learning how war altered their lives forever is a compelling way to understand why war often is the last alternative for resolving conflict.

Proud Web page authors surround their "Stories from the Street" Web page.
Such was the thinking that fueled my most recent technology project.

STORIES FROM VETERANS OF WAR

The same month in which much of the world was glued to television sets watching cruise missiles fall on Baghdad, a small group of my learners was holed up in my classroom preparing the Web pages that would become part of our Stories From the Street Website.

For some time, those students had been uncovering the history behind the names of the streets that surround our school. Situated on a former Canadian Armed Forces base, the nearby streets are named after World War I battles Canadian soldiers played a part in. Each student had chosen a battle, researched it, and created a Web page to profile his or her findings. Those Web pages became part of our entry in the Global Schoolhouse CyberFair.

That lesson might have been a purely academic activity -- but it actually was so much more. Somewhere between researching the bare facts and polishing their Web pages, the students came face to face with the people behind the uniforms.

The connection didn't happen by accident. Using primary and secondary sources, students were introduced to the grim reality of war and to the people who experienced it. Sifting through audio files, soldiers' diaries, video footage, interviews with veterans, artwork, virtual tours of battlefields, poetry, and novels set in 1914-1918, provided students with content for their Stories From the Street and helped communicate a quiet, but profound, message from another time and place.

More Voices

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays from previous weeks?

HISTORY COMES TO LIFE

I will never forget the day we read "The First of July," a World War I story by David McFarlane that is included in the book Story of a Nation. In this true story, MacFarlane tells about the summer he was assigned the task of sorting through the papers and memorabilia of an elderly spinster neighbor. To his surprise, he discovered that her past contained a World War I romance and tragedy. My students sat absolutely silent as they heard about the infamous Battle of Somme (1916), a shocking massacre in which the 1st Newfoundland Regiment was virtually annihilated within 30 minutes. To commemorate this grizzly attack, one student made a sound recording of Newfoundland Park Memorial, a poem found on a plaque at the entrance to the scene of this grizzly attack.

Subsequent online fieldtrips to places like Flanders Fields and Vimy Ridge provided students with a sense of the battle settings they were writing about. After moving through those battlegrounds and trenches, all of us felt as though we had been there -- we could almost touch the monuments and the walls of the trenches!

Reading the soldiers' diary entries proved to be very moving and thought provoking -- and turned out to be one of the most stirring experiences of this project. Those primary source materials exposed the soldiers' fears, the horrors they endured, the challenges of trench life, the ever-present homesickness, and their dreams for the future. Each student included on his or her Web page a sound file of one story from the trenches. As the readers of those diary entries, the students became the voices of the soldiers as recorded artillery sounds filled the background.

A tour of a local attraction, the Museum of the Regiments, connected students to valuable library resources and World War I experts who answered questions and shared interesting stories. We learned that the last soldier killed in World War I was a Canadian soldier who was shot just 2 minutes before the armistice took place in 1918. One student, a horse enthusiast, had to leave the room when one of the veterans shared the unique place that horses had in World War I battles. She told us later that seeing horses in gas masks and hearing how many of them had died made her "sick to her stomach."

Stories From the Street was a lesson and a project John Keating would have loved. My students took time to "lean in." They listened to the voices; the result was some very powerful learning.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

History Lessons: World War I Lessons
These lesson plans from the History of Teaching Institute at Ohio State University are designed to help students see the effects of WWI on different segments of the population.

The Western Front- Would You Have Made a Good Officer?
This simulation is intended to give students an idea of what World War I must have been like for those who fought it.

Life in the Trenches
This online simulation will shed light on the conditions faced in the trenches.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

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