Traveling Back to World War I
Upper School history teachers Howard Bay and Keith Preston and English teacher Patrick Cummins wanted their students to know more than mere facts about World War I (WWI). So they took their sophomore Honors English and junior Honors/Advanced Placement history students as close to the front lines as they could get—the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
In countless creative ways, “General” Bay, “Admiral” Preston, and “Chief Warrant Officer” Cummins immersed their students—or, rather, “privates”—in the WWI experience. Chaperones were platoon leaders, snacks were rations, they operated on military time, and they traveled by train. In addition, the privates worked in four-person fireteams (the smallest units in an infantry) to carry out (academic) missions and maneuvers at the museum.
Each morning before leaving their hotel, fireteam members put a patch (drawn on a mailing label) from a real WWI division on their “uniforms” (Principia polo shirts). This proved particularly meaningful as the group rounded a corner in the museum and found a display of outsized patches and a long row of soldiers’ uniforms with real patches sewn on the shoulders. Students rushed to find their patch on the wall and among the uniforms, sobered, no doubt, by their identification with these symbols of sacrifice.
This kind of personal identification with the subject matter is precisely the point of experiential learning. Not even the best of textbooks could convey the scope of the Great War as effectively as the museum’s collection, which includes letters from the frontlines; propaganda posters; helmets, weapons, and supplies from all countries in the conflict; artillery and aircraft; paintings and sculptures; recordings of wartime poems and songs; and even a play about the war. The field of 9,000 poppies at the museum’s entrance, each poppy representing 1,000 combatant fatalities, makes a striking impression as well.
At the start of the trip, the teachers gave each student a beautifully crafted, spiral-bound Field Guide. Titled “The Great War: Art, Fact, and Artifact,” it contained their itinerary, missions (i.e. assignments), supplementary readings, and illustrated pages for taking notes. As the guide’s title suggests, the missions encouraged students to consider the high art, popular culture, and paraphernalia of the time, as well as the “facts.” For example, after seeing the way different countries outfitted their soldiers, students wrote a short essay explaining which pieces they would have chosen and what single item they would not have wanted to carry or wear. They also tried to decipher cultural values from various countries’ uniforms and supplies. Other assignments included composing a war poem, creating a policy paper, and writing and performing a play (one per fireteam).
Without exception, the teachers were impressed not only by the students’ work but by their interest in sharing it. One night at dinner, for example, over one-third of the students volunteered to read their poems aloud. And all were eager to perform their plays.
Clearly, the students worked hard—and enjoyed it. One student called her mom mid-trip to say, “No one is ready to come home. We’re having a great time!” And soon after her return, she wrote, “Although it was challenging academically, it completely changed my outlook on war. . . . [I]t really helped me realize the need for peace in the world and the individual value of a life, and will definitely affect my future decisions.”
Then she added, “Also, I made a great new group of friends . . . .”
Indeed, the bonding among the group was an unexpected blessing. Asking students from three separate courses and two different class years to live and work together isn’t a surefire recipe for success, but it worked—perhaps because, as with a battalion, the success of their mission depended on it.
(View photos from the trip here.)