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Recovering the Lost Voices of World War II
Learning about World War II at the D-Day Beaches of Normandy
Lynne M. O’Hara
In the winter of 2011, I was working late in my classroom at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, when I opened an email offering a summer institute where 15 teachers would walk the D-Day beaches in Normandy, France. The catch—each teacher had to bring one high school student. I have to admit, I was initially reluctant. I did not like being responsible for a high school student abroad. I had never heard of student-teacher cooperative learning. But the chance to walk on Utah and Omaha Beach was too great a pull. I decided to take a risk. Through a blind essay read, I chose my student, Carson Rolleri, to apply for the institute with me. I warned her that the odds were against us. We completed the application and a few weeks later I received an offer. It was a wonderful moment to call a student at home and ask, “Do you want to go to France this summer?” Her squeal of delight was one of the highlights of my teaching career. And so our journey began. The Albert Small Student/Teacher Institute—Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom was inaugurated by National History Day (NHD) in June of 2011. Albert H. Small, a noted businessman, philanthropist and veteran, had long had the desire to create a program that would inform younger generations of the sacrifices made by his generation during World War II, and in particular during the D-Day Invasion. In 2010, Mr. Small turned to NHD, an innovative curriculum of student-driven research projects, to plan and implement such a program. The Institute begins with a shipment of books. Over the following five months, student-teacher teams read to prepare for the seminar. Carson Rolleri and I had the same reading assignments, and we met regularly to discuss the material and to craft responses for online discussions. This gave many of the high school students their first taste of a college seminar format, while having a one-on-one mentor. Teachers and students participated in discussion boards to share their reflections and reactions to books like Alex Kershaw’s The Bedford Boys, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers , or the World War II cartoons of Bill Mauldin. Many realized that there was much more to this program. Jenna Gilbertson, a 2013 student participant, noted that an online discussion of conscientious objectors from Studs Terkel’s The Good War left her realizing “…how much I really did not understand sacrifice.” Participants studied the Normandy campaign through a series of lenses. They studied military strategy and tactics, considered the geographic challenges in mounting a land invasion of Europe, and discussed political consequences of the decisions made by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and others. But they also contemplated the economic realities of the Great Depression in the United States, and the social history of the men and women who served in uniform and on the home front. They grappled with
Charlyne Cuyar, a 2013 student scholar, pauses at the grave of her Fallen Soldier, PFC Pedro Rodón at the Normandy American Cemetery.
Each year, 15 students and 15 teachers are selected in a national competition for the extensive learning experience. In June, this group of students and teachers is transported first to Washington, D.C., and then to Normandy, France, for an unparalleled opportunity of in-depth learning. Participants in the Institute gain not only a better understanding of World War II, but a greater appreciation of our country’s role and the sacrifices that were made for freedom.
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Photo by Melissa Andersen
a 2013 teacher participant. (Photo by Cathy Gorn. D. In 2011. ingenuity. He was sleeping in his foxhole on the beach. France. Utilizing census records. Alexander and heading to England. another piece to the puzzle.” as Kelly Steffen. Carson noted that this S o c i a l E d u c at i o n 240 project helped her “really get a feel for the man’s character. his job. Begel. We had found something that would help us get a better look into our soldier’s life. students began to reconstruct the story of one person.” Students researched the soldier or sailor’s hometown during World War II and the history of their military unit and family. and lost hours. Pennsylvania. stated. Missouri).2013 student scholar Reilly Ries collects sand on Omaha Beach. The goal of the Washington segment of . His job on Utah Beach was to load and unload supplies from ships for transport to shore. He worked as a welder before being drafted into the Army in July 1942. high school yearbooks. each student chose an individual from his or her home state or territory who fought in the campaign and is buried in the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer. and I was initially skeptical that we would find much of any information on this man. from Lehighton. teams spent one day researching at the National Archives. She wanted to choose an ordinary soldier. and the research required a lot of patience. He trained at Fort Indiantown Gap. Experts from academic and military institutions offered lectures while staff from National History Day helped the students and teachers process the knowledge. noted that the research process “made memorializing our soldier much more of a personal investment. Carson chose Technician Fourth Class Willard U. Louis. Pennsylvania. Seamus Ryan-Johnson. and the dangers to which he was exposed. But this also made finding a new document even more exciting. This assignment allowed each student to study the campaign through the eyes of one soldier or sailor. In addition. a 2013 student participant. 1944. when German air strikes hit Utah Beach. Students “adopted” these men and researched their lives. For five days.” The research concluded in late June as the teams met in Washington. before boarding the USAT Edmund B. student-teacher pairs attended lectures from historians to gain “the structure and scholarship needed to understand this historical event. In addition to the academic readings. These pivotal sources were not easily found. draft and enlistment records (those few that survived the 1973 National Archives fire in St. family remembrances.C. I was wrong. Begel was killed on June 15.) challenging historical questions—how does one deal with conscientious objectors in World War II—and considered the theme of leadership as officers prepared men for the hellish reality of combat. and later at the port of Boston. The research process was challenging but rewarding.
” Teams also processed the enormity of the 9. and for many. noted. “As soon as you start running you immediately get hit by the wind and also you run through water which once in a while had holes that you couldn’t see. Another student discussed the role of Operation Neptune while standing on Utah Beach. and fulfilling.” During the Institute. There the students became experts. “Having the chance to see all of the Normandy battlefields and landmarks was powerful. On Omaha Beach.” said Carson Rolleri. “We each had chosen just one person in a sea of many. 2013. “The day I presented my eulogy. Information can be found at www. and then presented their eulogies. the students identified with the person whom they called “my soldier” or “my sailor. and spatial learning experiences. looking for their specific soldier.387 graves and 1. This research helped students connect to the campaign in a way that no book could. A student who studied a paratrooper from the 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions explained the importance of the French town of St. “I was able to not only see where history took place but also be a part of the past. I couldn’t help but think of all he sacrificed. And while most never find that particular person.” But more importantly.” he said.” The final day of the trip was the single most powerful and moving educational experience. coping with a reality that happened a few decades ago. “I have a greater understanding of and appreciation for the many young men who sacrificed their promising futures for a greater purpose. I couldn’t help but weep about all he wasn’t able to do. because after several months of research. but standing in the place where it happened offered an added dimension of authentic geographic. a 2013 student participant. the Normandy Invasion became understandable in a way that is impossible to achieve in a classroom alone.… The translucent seawater became that of a reddish color O c t o b e r 2 0 13 241 due to the excessive amount of blood shed by countless soldiers…. place their soldier or sailor into the context of the invasion. Mère Eglise and the need to control the causeways at the bridge at La Fière. The students placed American and French flags in front of the graves. “The soldier research allowed our students to apply cognitive historical skills to a noteworthy and patriotic cause. Charlyne Cuyar recalled. currently in its pilot phase. “I could stand on the beach and To expand the reach of the program.org National History Day is running the Normandy Institute from June 21-July 3. More information will be available on the NHD website www. Others recounted tales from family members. After walking across bridges and causeways.the Institute was to help the participants gain an understanding of the historical context. they gained great insight.” Many students noted that they were often the only person to have ever visited the grave of that particular soldier.nhd.” said Timothy Cohn. I felt butterflies. in the shadow of the fortified bunkers and the machine gun nests. Reading history is powerful. “It allowed us to really connect to the fear and loss that came with Operation Overlord. had a face. climbing up bluffs and down into bomb craters.org/normandyinstitute.nhd.” Some students tried to do what the soldiers did. . and consider the role of the home front during the war. Seamus Ryan-Johnson said he realized the terrible immensity of the war. They studied maps and photographs at the National Archives. each casualty.557 names on the Wall of the Missing. and another explained the process of notifying families of their loved one’s passing at the American Cemetery. The group traveled to each of the individuals’ graves or names on the Wall of the Missing. “I ran up Utah Beach like the infantry men would have except I had it a lot easier and that was still the hardest run I have ever had to do. another student. also a 2013 participant. Some students wrote or recited poems and others sang. tactile. said. reminded us that each number. tragically short.” wrote Charlyne Cuyar. The tone of the trip changed when the teams traveled to Normandy. As I read what I had written. They spent the next five days exploring the geographic locations they had studied. 2014. Silent Heroes. When these American teenagers saw the place and felt the waves on the shore. giving briefings about the campaigns in the locations “their” soldiers or sailors had been. “Strolling along the very shores of Omaha and Utah Beaches … one can somewhat picture what it would have been like in 1944. students listened and learned in a very different way than in the classroom. I fully understood the significance of each location. Students began to see the locations through the eyes of their soldiers. Applications are due by midnight on Monday. they asked questions based on their research. the flags were given to the students so that the soil of Normandy would return home with them. the students paid tribute at the graves of their heroes in the Normandy American Cemetery. Teacher Kenneth Tucker. “Each grave memorializes an individual whose life was unique. exhausting. will launch in 2014. a family. National History Day and National World War II Museum are collaborating to develop “Silent Heroes”—a classroom program modeled after the research that Normandy Institute teams conduct. At the conclusion of their eulogies. This was one of the most emotional aspects of the Institute.” said Jenna Gilbertson.” These emotional connections got stronger when students reached the locations near where their soldiers or sailors fell. The process is emotional.htm actually imagine the soldiers running to take the bluffs and causeways. When I pressed the sand on his name. Karee Wicks. Some told stories. December 2. shivering in the rain in the hedgerows. Another participant.
one territory. “Mentoring a student through her project will remain one of the most important highlights of my career. Over the last three years.” Albert H. Validate your scholars’ achievements Start a Rho Kappa Chapter Today! For more information call 301-588-1800 ext. A discussion with John Newhart revealed that Dewey had not received two medals he had earned. my approach to teaching history has changed. and a deeper.” It is the story of these imperfect men and women who bring history alive. they lived it. a 2013 Normandy Teacher Scholar. “Survivors of conflicts realize the magnitude of what they have done.” Frieling remarked. Lauren Grunding. the soldier she researched. a 2011 scholar.and a life. O’Hara was a teacher participant in the Normandy Institute in 2011. Students and teachers continue to share their learning and powerful experience through classrooms. wrote. Working with her teacher. It is a sobering realization that helps participants comprehend the human cost of war and the importance of continued diplomacy. “It was a moment. like peace. all the while standing up for the noble ideals of the United States—the ideals.” said Stephanie Smith.socialstudies. Derek Frieling. they filled out the applications for the medals.” Melissa Andersen. found the brother of Dewey Newhart. after returning home. “Having sifted the sand of Omaha Beach through my fingers. formed bonds. Small’s vision continues to spread. my world-view has changed. because not only did I witness her becoming a more passionate learner by asking questions and facilitating her own research but I also got to see her become a more globally aware young adult.. and presentations to audiences large and small.” wrote Josh Bill. having stood in a bunker where impossibly young German soldiers mowed down impossibly young American soldiers with machine guns . She is currently the director of programs of National History Day. all given up in the sacrifice for freedom. and the District of Columbia.” The lessons of the Institute continued as participants returned to their home states and presented their learning to local audiences in the school and communities. “that made me proud that Lauren and I were able to complete the recognition that Newhart deserved after all those years in making the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country. Normandy Scholars have represented 28 states. They can proudly proclaim that they bore the brunt of war’s cruelty. more profound understanding of the price of American freedom has been born within me. The Normandy Institute offers a unique historical learning experience that puts a human face on conflict. Lynne M. gained and lost friends. and pre- sented the medals to John Newhart in a public ceremony. assemblies. a teacher.. a teacher who participated in 2013.org S o c i a l E d u c at i o n 242 .107 or visit rhokappa. “While we stood on the beaches. are never perfectly achieved. had them approved.