With the 75th anniversary of the World War II D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6 and the centennial of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought an end to World War I, on June 28, history educators may be looking for ways to revamp how they teach the events of these and other historic conflicts to K-12 students.
While many history lessons often rehash the same important details of past events at each grade level, there are a number of options for educators looking to deepen engagement across all grade levels. From sharing artifacts to focusing on the stories of those on the frontlines, these are a few of the best options.
Source personal narratives
Original sources and first-person accounts allow educators to lift the history of war and conflict from the printed page. A textbook can provide facts, but a letter written by someone from the front lines, for example, can deliver more context and help students better engage in the material.
Ellen Resnek, who teaches 10th-grade world history and Advanced Placement European history at Downingtown High School East in Exton, Pennsylvania, believes using personal narratives with her students not only helps them connect to a specific moment, but also delivers tools that “…challenge students to make a difference in the global world of today,” she told Education Dive by email.
“When we teach about the horror of conflicts, we often miss the personal narratives, and that makes the subject too distant for our students to connect with,” said Resnek, also an advisor for the National Honor Society and member of the National Council for History Education's Teacher Advisory Group. Through the council's network, she is also able to source other ideas on lessons, resources and even field trip suggestions.
“Those who have lived and died, through their recorded attitudes, actions, and ideas, have left a legacy of experience,” she said.
One place educators can start looking for online documents is The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the National Archives, both of which have tens of thousands of resources digitized online. For example, a handwritten document written by General Dwight D. Eisenhower before D-Day, apologizing to the troops and meant to be sent in case the operation failed, is in the National Archives, Gilder Lehrman's director of education, Tim Bailey, told Education Dive. Using a document like this can bring more tangible learning to students, helping them gain context.
“Instead of interpreting what President Franklin Roosevelt was thinking during the first inaugural address, for example, let’s read the first inaugural,” Bailey said. “Then we can see what was inside his head and then step back.”
To help educators develop curriculum specifically around World War I, the organization is running workshops in 40 cities, designed in conjunction with the World War I Centennial Commission, said Bailey. Teachers can sign up and take part in the free two-year program, which will launch again for the 2019-20 school year. Some lesson plans are already online for educators' use.
Put artifacts in students' hands
Christian Scott is a big believer in having students actually handle items that played a role in historic conflicts. As a grades 6-8 social studies and history teacher at The Patrick Lyndon Pilot School in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, Scott takes 7th graders on school tours of the International Museum of World War II in Natick, Massachusetts, each year, he told Education Dive by email.
There, students can see not just artifacts from the war, but how soldiers and civilians adapted their lives during that time. Scott said he has shown students a pair of snow boots made from rope, a child’s guide to aircraft spotting, and a wedding dress made from a parachute in occupied France.
“The students have a chance to shoulder rifles and feel their weight, to lean over Churchill's war room map table, and to see the blood stained communion set of a military chaplain,” said Scott.
If traveling isn’t possible, the Smithsonian Learning Lab has thousands of resources that educators can source online, and for free. Among them are objects soldiers would have used during the conflict, from an eight-day clock, a flight instrument used by a pilot in a war plane, to a page from a soldier’s diary as a prisoner of war.
The site allows educators to “… create a personal collection of resources and make it your own,” Ashley Naranjo, manager of educator engagement for the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, told Education Dive. There are also 19 curated lessons online already that focus just on D-Day, which teachers can use for free.
Focus on soldiers, not leaders
PBS LearningMedia has a collection, “Life During World War II: Understanding History Through Artifacts,” that brings stories of soldiers from all over the world to life. Among them are "a decorated Soviet female sniper, a heroic (and pregnant!) female French Resistance fighter and an American female pilot who served as a member of the [Women Air Force Service Pilots], and seeing the uniforms they wore and the weapons they carried,” Elizabeth Gardner, a senior project manager at WGBH, a partner in the free online program, told Education Dive by email.
Kevin A. Wagner, social studies program chair at Carlisle High School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, thinks educators sometimes put too much emphasis on those in charge — presidents and generals, for example — and not enough on the people on the ground fighting. That’s one reason, for the past eight years, Wagner has assigned students a year-long study on World War II solders buried at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, creating a web site to honor their “Silent Hero,” Wagner told Education Dive by email. Wagner has also built instructional videos, worksheets and plans that other educators can adopt, as well.
“I believe that the greatest pitfall that history and civics educators fall into when teaching conflicts and wars is to focus entirely on the political and military leadership during the war periods,” he said. “Most of our textbooks tend to focus their attention solely on the leadership and, in doing so, completely miss that these wars and conflicts are fought from the average, ordinary man or woman’s perspective.”