Micro-Historical Questioning: Teaching the World Wars to Mid-Years Students By Dave Little

The challenges of introducing twelve and thirteen-year-olds to the two world wars can be significant.  While some are immediately interested—often because of video games—many others remain placidly indifferent.  Couple these apathetic students with a teacher whose fascination with these wars seems to be fixed in his very DNA, and a huge chasm yawns open in the classroom.  How, then, does one “hook” these unresponsive students into a meaningful engagement with historical material that they would normally find quite tedious?

Posing what I would call micro-historical questions, questions eliciting a response to the wars at a very personal, individual—often emotional—level, has proved successful in engaging mid-years students—even the history-resistant.

I start my interdisciplinary English/social studies unit with a lesson that asks about the different types of conflicts in the world, e.g., among friends, within families, between cultures, in sports, between countries.  This is an unspectacular beginning to be sure, but the questions serve as an effective avenue to solicit the contributions of those who don’t care a fig about the grand sweep of world events prior to both wars.  Then I challenge them to try to distil from this list general causes of conflict, like, for instance, greed, power, fear, pride, or misunderstanding.  The students’ response is usually encouraging.  However, at this point I do unavoidably cross back to my side of the chasm by asking them to list current and past wars.  Certainly the “war keeners” are engaged, but, alas, the others seem to lapse into a (usually) polite mental retreat from the lesson to which they now consider themselves unwilling prisoners.  After I catalogue the wars on the board, I begin the arduous task of dragging the “war-weary” across the chasm by asking if countries fight for the same reasons that people do.  To illustrate this point I then begin to outline the causes of these wars (especially the two world wars) and ask them, as I proceed, to draw from the lists that they themselves generated about sources of conflicts.  Some do re-engage here, but my on-going challenge is to bring greater numbers to participate in the discussion.

Subsequently, I ask the class to take into account what we have hitherto explored and to explain the actions citizens in a democracy could/should take when their country declares war.  Here greater engagement occurs, as this question can be quite personal—particularly since pacifist Mennonites homesteaded parts of our school division.  The range of possibilities provided by the students is varied.  More climb aboard when I shift the question to why some people would choose the option of risking their lives by enlisting.  The answers here range from the standard “to serve their country” to “they needed a job” to the refreshingly frank “’cause they could get more women by wearing a uniform”—and there aren’t many left on the far side of the chasm after this last answer.

My next focus is to use the pictures and experiences from my battlefield tour to follow up these questions and try to sustain this engagement—and the oddest aspects seem to fascinate the students the most.  While some are moved by the destruction evidenced by the sea of tombstones at Tyne Cot cemetery and the wartime pictures of the mud at Passchendaele, peculiarly enough, it is the sheep at Vimy Ridge which seem to elicit the greatest response.  Nothing brings home the ferocity of the war more vividly than the fact that almost one hundred years later so much ordnance lies unexploded at Vimy that only sheep can be used to “mow” the grounds … and … (here the students question me) … no, I didn’t see any exploding sheep.

To expose my grade eights for the first time to original material from the collection of the National Archives, I distribute photocopies of my great uncle’s attestation papers and his service record.  Here again I must confess that a number of students at first drift off to the opposite side of the chasm, although many do stay me with me in an interesting initial discussion to access the information provided.  Where I get the stragglers back aboard is when I dip into family lore, give them some background information, and prompt them to question the relevance and accuracy of the data in the documents.  Specifically I ask them to indicate what my Uncle Fred promised at the bottom of the attestation paper where he signed: i.e., that he was telling the truth.  Then I direct them to the year of birth, 1899, and ask them how old that would have made him when he enlisted: eighteen.  Since he was actually born in 1900, I ask what this means.  Once they determine that he lied to enlist under-age—and students are increasingly interested at this point—I tell them that my great grandmother intended to have him removed from the army, but he threatened to run away and sign up somewhere else where she wouldn’t find him.  Essentially he blackmailed his poor mother (anyone who has raised teenagers will be familiar with this tactic) and she relented.  When the students arrive at end of Uncle Fred’s service record, the brevity of the words is quite stark: “Killed in Action.”  (I reinforce this with a picture of his tombstone, discuss the families’ personal inscription on it, and then read his last letter to my grandfather, his younger brother, where, ironically, Uncle Fred as much as commands him not to sign up for the army.)  I believe that for significant numbers of grade eight students the right sort of questioning at a micro-historical level can breathe life into archival material.  How would the next of kin feel?  What would it be like at seventeen or eighteen years of age to make out a will?  Describe the possible reactions of the enlisting officer knowing that the local boys he was signing-up would be soon in danger of dying.  The possibilities provided by National Archives’ documents are certainly numerous because each of them has a unique, personal story to tell.

As a prelude to a writing assignment, we examine the telegram—Circumstances of Death or Missing Report—delivered to my grandfather’s family in Montreal.  I ask the students to envision how they might feel receiving this news and instruct them to reply to my question by writing a diary entry from the point of view of somebody in a home reeling from such a message.  The students’ response has been overwhelming, as they percolate with excellent ideas.  I receive many first-rate submissions every year—some from unlikely sources—from refreshingly different viewpoints, most memorably the perspective of the family dog.  Already this year I have been promised one from the point of view of a bereaved male lover—oh the times they are a changin’.  The extent of engagement here is perhaps best illustrated by the case of a thirteen-year old girl who handed me her paper and said: “Mr. Little, ever since my dad died suddenly, I haven’t been able to write about how I felt when I found out.  For the first time I’ve written about it in my diary entry, but you can’t show it to anybody else.”  When I read these I’m always moved by how acutely my students “get it”—how even my most reluctant writers acknowledge the sacrifices not only borne by the soldiers but also experienced by their distraught families.  At this point the war lives for them—and the assignment isn’t complete yet.  Using the Audacity program on the school’s computers the students choose appropriate background music and record a reading of their letters.  Many of these are also quite poignant—in part because I have relented on my earlier insistence that students employ a war-era song as background.  It seems that emotions contained in old letters can reach across the generations, but much popular music is quickly dated.

Subsequent to this I have the students one at a time read aloud to the entire class wartime accounts from Barry Broadfoot’s Six War Years.  This is a further attempt to answer the question of how modern war impacted Canadian soldiers and civilians.  While I welcome the opportunity to have my grade eights explore this and practice their public speaking, I must frankly admit that it is one of the weaker parts of the unit.  Some of the accounts are quite interesting, but others are difficult, either because of obscure (to the students) references or because they simply don’t connect with the students’ experiences at an emotional level.  My on-going challenge here is to find superior material for them to read.

All wars end and so too must my unit, so to conclude it I ask my class about both the joys and also the problems of adjustment facing soldiers returning to Canada.  Student engagement here is reasonably strong, especially in reaction to varied responses given with typical grade eight candour: “The soldier gets to eat decent food and sleep in his own bed (with his wife)” or “The guy’s been away for five years and finds that his wife has a two year-old kid.”  As a follow-up to these questions I explore the short story, somewhat ironically titled “A Hero’s Welcome.”  This is an easy-to-read piece from a young boy’s point of view, which candidly outlines some of the adjustments faced by returning veterans after World War II.  The students’ response is not as strong here as I would wish and I constantly strive to find ways to sustain their high level of engagement enjoyed while they were working on their diary entries.

My unit is intended as an introduction, a vehicle for giving twelve and thirteen-year-olds a solid sense of the impact of two world wars on Canadians.  It works well when it asks questions at a personal, emotional level.  However, this means that, although I do teach the political machinations causing the wars and briefly examine some of the major military actions, I have to pass on the torch to my high school colleagues to elaborate these and to pose more of the larger, macro-historical questions.


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