Making History: Global Perspectives on Primary Sources

Every Wednesday at Whittle School and Studios is X-Day – an entire school day devoted to experiences that support our experiential and project-based learning curriculum.  The schedule is ours to design and all ideas are on the table.  It is not easy to come up with a fresh and extraordinary educational experience each week.  It takes a lot of effort and communication.  But when the programming comes together, you can feel the power of experiential learning working for both students and teachers. Of course, distance learning and the stay at home orders mean that experiential education looks different now.  There are additional challenges that must be overcome. Still, we are finding ways to encourage students to look out at the world around them, to ask meaningful questions, and to engage.

This Wednesday, May 6, turned out to be such a treat. I was able to present with my colleagues Dr. Erik Hermans, a fellow humanities teacher; Xueying Zhang, the director of our Chinese program; and Ainhoa Menchen, a lower and middle school Spanish teacher.  The 7th grade project is to create and collect primary sources for the DC History Center In Real Time Project, which invites DC residents “to reflect on this present moment of pandemic and disruption with future readers and viewers in mind.” Participants are encouraged to submit photographs, videos, interviews, and artwork to the project, which will archive them and make them available to future generations. What an exciting opportunity to become a part of history!

To help students understand the importance of documenting one’s personal experience and collecting the materials that reflect what is happening right now, we turned to examples from World War II, which the 7th graders are currently studying. 

First Dr. Hermans showed a picture of a Dutch town, Nijmegen, in 1944, after it had been bombed.  This town is where Dr. Hermans grew up and went to college.  He told us how it came be destroyed.  A group of American pilots were en route to attack a German target, but it was too cloudy, and they had to abort the mission.  On their way back, they received a message to destroy any train stations that might connect The Netherlands and Germany.  Nijmegen had such a train station, and so it was bombed.  This photo represents the incredible destruction that took place during World War II, often without much notice or thought.

Next, Xueying Zhang shared primary sources and stories that are critical to Chinese narratives about World War II.  These included the Nanjing Massacre, Doolittle’s Raid on Tokyo, and the Flying Tigers.  She said that the volunteer air force personnel who supported China in the war are still seen as heroes, and there are memorials and museums built in their honor.  It was a moment of historical cooperation between the two countries. 

The students were particularly interested in documentation recording the lives of Jewish people who escaped Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, including this report card and ID card of a young girl. 

Ainhoa Menchen shared this photo of a memorial located in the Basque region.  It symbolizes the support local citizens gave to the French resistance against the Nazis.  She explained that at the time, Spain was coming out of a brutal civil war and largely uninvolved in World War II, which is not something many people remember.  However, when Adolf Hitler asked for dictator Franco’s support, he refused.  Amongst all of the chaos, Senora Menchen is glad that in that case, the right decision was made. 

I showed a picture of my grandfather, Daniel Clyde Labrie, shortly after he enlisted or was drafted into the army in 1942.  Daniel was a farmer in St. Landry parish, Louisiana, where his family had lived (both free and enslaved) since the 18th century.  He had an 8th grade education.  After joining the military he was sent to Guam where he became an aircraft mechanic and earned an A&P license.  After the war, these skills, and perhaps a new outlook on life, would allow him to become part of the Great Migration; he moved to northern California and became a mechanic for the airlines at Oakland airport.  This opportunity allowed him to buy a house and send his eight children to college.  While World War II was truly destructive to many families around the world, for others it was the door that led to a better life. 

Following the presentation, the students were very inspired to go off and begin collecting and creating the primary sources that would document their experience during this pandemic crisis.  They could see that constructing an accurate account of historical events requires multiple perspectives and that everyone’s experience is part of the story.  For the teachers, it was amazing to see how our global faculty could come together to widen our students’ point of view on a moment in time.  None of us could have told each other’s stories, but together we wove a more powerful narrative. The Whittle vision is of a global community teaching and learning together.  Today we saw just how inspirational that vision could be. 

To be a part of DC History visit https://www.dchistory.org/in-real-time/.  Here some of the pieces our 7th graders will be submitting:  

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