As a high school world history teacher, I cover the history of each continent from 3.7 million BCE to the present in one school year. I teach thematically, focusing on the major political, economic, religious, social, intellectual, and artistic achievements throughout the world and their development over time. The course places particular emphasis on gender roles and comprises four “world tours,” one per grading period, which survey world history during ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern times.
In an urban school district with several ESL students, primary sources pose a challenge due to the prevalence of antiquated or unfamiliar words and writing styles. Yet, interpreting documents is an essential skill that students must learn. Furthermore, the thrill of the connection to the past that primary sources bring is a rewarding experience. My ninth grade classes enjoy the simple, yet powerful writing of Florence Farmborough’s journal, written during the Great War.1 The students also enjoy its intimate nature and element of familiarity to the reader. I use Farmborough’s diary at the beginning of the fourth grading period to coincide with our final “world tour.” I work with students during the year to help them read primary sources and draw conclusions from them. They initially have difficulty understanding content. So I begin by having them focus on reading for information. Then, we gradually move to drawing conclusions from sources and to writing arguments supported by primary evidence.
Farmborough’s diary works well because it divides easily into short segments and is not difficult to understand because it uses modern language. Farmborough was an English nurse working on the Russian front. Her diary contains many descriptive, lively accounts of the war and the very active role played by women, both in the traditional role as caretakers of the wounded, but also as fighters. For example, her profile of Yasha Bachkarova, leader of the Women’s Death Battalion, contradicts a stereotypical view of women. Farmborough also notes that women soldiers were a common site at the Russian front. When she sets off for the front, she notes receiving the same ceremonial send-off from her adopted Russian family as that reserved for male soldiers. There are several selections detailing the role of nurses at the front and the wretched conditions under which they lived, traveled and worked.
The exploration of selections from this source allows students to compare different roles occupied by women in war and to examine perceptions of gender. The 20th century was one of extreme changes in women’s roles, particularly in western society. Farmborough reveals her disapproval of “masculine” women, such as those serving as soldiers, and mocks female doctors. Such notations reveal how much gender perceptions had changed by World War I, while simultaneously revealing how much they would still change by the present.
Even though Farmborough’s writing is simple, vocabulary exercises are necessary. Farmborough uses some difficult words and incorporates Russian phrases followed by English translations, but I avoid the passages containing Russian, because they confuse students. I provide some background about the author, and then, as a pre-reading homework activity, I ask them to generate answers to a series of questions, in which they anticipate what they expect to find in Farmborough’s writing. The answers to those questions unconsciously reflect students’ perceptions of women and their role in society. During the following class, students share their responses. Then they read the excerpts of the diary, noting anything they find interesting or surprising. After finishing reading, students complete an activity, writing on whether their predictions were accurate or not, and whether they were surprised about what they read. These activities help students become active readers, and consequently, active learners.
Finally, I facilitate a discussion that revolves around two themes. The first: Do women suffer a greater burden in war than men? I like comparing the resolve of the nurses to the wounded male soldiers. Which of the two were braver? Which of the two endured harsher conditions? Aspects from the home front are also important. Women lost their husbands and sons, the breadwinners for their families. Such losses inflicted not only emotional pain, but also increased financial burdens. Women were forced to work in the war effort and many, out of grief and anger, took arms against the Germans, as exemplified by Bachkarova and her battalion. Farmborough notes that the supreme duty of Red Cross nurses was “to do everything in one’s power to preserve and restore life.” Consequently, who were the greater heroes of the war? Afterward, women gained the right to vote. This leads to the second theme for discussion: Did their efforts in the war effect this decision? Such connections lead into future discussions on the extension of the franchise to women. I find younger students have difficulty identifying long-range, complex effects of monumental occurrences. These discussions are productive in facilitating student understanding of how events interrelate.
For advanced classes, I close the lesson by focusing on Farmborough’s perceptions of proper roles for women in war and then connecting her views to students’ own responses to the pre-reading activity. In several entries, Farmborough expresses disapproval of women performing “masculine” roles in war. She feels obliged to differentiate female doctors from their male counterparts, noting them as “lady-doctors” and not according them the same respect. Farmborough claims that many women soldiers were scared at the front and “were quite unfit to be soldiers.” Discussion (or journal topic) revolves around the following questions: What does Farmborough view as women’s role in society? Was it similar or different from your own perceptions? In what way? How have perceptions of gender changed since the Great War?
Using Farmborough’s diary, students gain a greater appreciation of women’s roles in war and explore shifting and varied perceptions of gender, while simultaneously building on prior learning and laying foundations for future discussion. Interpreting such a source increases students’ ability to read and draw conclusions, which is a critical skill in both life and standardized testing.
1 Florence Farmborough, Nurse at the Russian Front: A Diary, 1914-1918 (London: Constable, 1974); Florence Farmborough, With the Armies of the Tsar: A Nurse at the Russian Front in War and Revolution, 1914-1918, 1st U.S. ed. (Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day, 1974). The first U.S. edition was reprinted under the same title by Cooper Square Press in 2000.