RRCHNM Goes to Europe for WWII Field Study

Last month, staff from National History Day and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media led 18 middle and high school teachers on a two-week field study of WWII in Northern Europe. This trip is part of Understanding Sacrifice, an 18-month program of study, research, and lesson plan development for the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC).

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Visiting the ABMC Utah Beach Memorial.

Beginning in London and ending in Amsterdam, the group visited six ABMC WWII cemeteries in England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In preparation, each teacher researched the life of an individual buried in one of the ABMC cemeteries. At each site, teachers presented short eulogies to share with their fellow teachers and cemetery visitors. The research led teachers to military records, local newspapers, and sometimes even to contact with family members who shared letters, photographs, and diaries. During the trip, several teachers also met with the Dutch citizens who had “adopted” the grave of their fallen service member.

To provide further context, the group visited museums and historic sites related to military history. For a British perspective on the war, the teachers visited the Imperial War Museum in London, as well as the Churchill War Rooms. A ferry ride crossing the English Channel traced the  path of U.S. forces on D-Day. Standing on Utah and Omaha Beaches in Normandy provided a geographic perspective on what the U.S. forces faced on D-Day, and the Utah Beach Museum offered additional perspectives on the battle from air, land, and sea.

For teachers studying the war after D-Day, the French hedgerow country offered a sobering perspective on the challenges of fighting in that terrain. The Mardasson Monument and the Bastogne War Museum provided an opportunity to explore the Battle of the Bulge. Visits to a German and a British WWII cemetery provided teachers with a comparative study of how nations memorialize war.

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Teacher Brian Weaver applies sand from the beaches of Normandy to the headstone of the serviceman he had researched.

The challenge for participating teachers was to find ways to bring these experiences as well as the knowledge gained throughout the yearlong study back to classrooms for other teachers and students. To do so, the teachers took pictures, made sketches, created videos, and spoke with cemetery staff. These materials will be incorporated into peer-reviewed lessons. Historian Christopher Hamner, NHD Executive Director Cathy Gorn, NHD Director of Programs Lynne O’Hara, and RRCHNM’s Jennifer Rosenfeld also met individually with each of the teachers to provide feedback and guidance on their materials.

RRCHNM multi-media developer Chris Preperato documented the trip for the project website, abmceducation.org, and for evaluative purposes. RRCHNM is now working with the teachers to turn their service member profiles and lesson plans into interdisciplinary online resources for teaching about World War II in Europe. These materials will be available in November 2015.

To follow along the trip, please visit the NHD blog for daily guest posts from participating teachers.

If you or a teacher you know would like to participate in next year’s program focused on WWII in the Mediterranean, please visit http://www.nhd.org/classroom-connection/american-battle-monuments-commission. The application deadline is September 4, 2015.

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