Frontenac High School in Kansas sees Glimpses From The Great War
By James Nowak
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
A hundred years later, why should the Great War have any meaning for today’s high school students? “Why we fight wars today probably hasn’t changed a whole lot,” explains Brady Hill, history/ government teacher at Frontenac High School in Kansas. “Diplomacy fails, other means fail, and having that understanding is important,” On a conceptual level this makes sense, but it’s hardly appealing to today’s teens. Hill believes it’s the personal views and hearing first-hand experiences of individual Doughboys that bring America’s role in World War I alive for his students.
Hill is passionate about history and understands the challenges of making history real for students. Earlier this year, an article in The Doughboy Foundation’s “World War I Dispatch” about a new World War I documentary caught Hill’s attention. He contacted filmmaker Jim Nowak about incorporating Nowak’s award-winning documentary, Glimpses From The Great War into this class’s curriculum. Nowak was enthusiastic about collaborating.
The documentary centered around two Doughboys from Ohio’s 37th “Buckeye” Division in World War I and featured interviews with them that were recorded in the 1980s. “We read about soldiers’ experiences, but having no World War I veterans left, sometimes you don’t get their experiences. You don’t get it straight from them,” Hill says. “To hear from soldiers who were actually there, to hear their experiences and how they experienced things, makes it more real for the students.” Period photos from their tour of duty were restored and colorized for the film, helping enhance their first-hand view of The Great War.
Hill showed the film near the end of his history segment on World War I. This gave his students context, and in watching Glimpses From The Great War the students were intrigued, as Hill said, realizing “These are real people making real decisions, and these people are Soldiers and some of them don’t come back.”
To heighten the perception of the era, Glimpses From The Great War includes newly recorded songs from 1917 to 1922, such as “The American Army in France,” “Off To The Front” and “We’re Coming, Bill, to Get You,” that were popular back then but are now long forgotten. The style of music and lyrics is far removed from what students hear today, tantalizing the more musically inclined students. Hill remarked, “Just to hear the lyrics, we would talk about them a little bit, what they meant and why they were saying those things. Anytime you can give them a different avenue to hear the current things that were happening, it’s a good way to connect them.”
There was another, uniquely personal facet Hill introduced to his class. His mother, whom he credits for his deep interest in history, gave him a stack of postcards she’d gotten at an auction. Hill recalled there were “30 or 40 postcards from a soldier in WW1,” who was Private Howard F. Nichols, from Company H, 7th Infantry, U.S. Army. “I let the kids look at those and actually transcribe them. They really worked on what they were saying, and we took the time to talk about them, put them in chronological order and did some stuff on what they were experiencing when.” There was an energy for the class, he feels, in actually working with original items from the era. “I think that helped them understand a little bit of what was going on in the war, what the soldiers were experiencing. That was something that drew them in a little bit.” He believes they that they felt “This is a real postcard. This isn’t just something we made up.”
The postcard experience took their interest beyond class assignments and several students took the initiative. “They wanted to find out what happened to Private Nichols. They actually looked that guy up, found out when he died and where he was living. I didn’t tell them to do that. They just went and did that. They were curious.”
The class also drew parallels between today’s wariness of international threats and Constitutional freedoms with those that occurred a hundred years ago. Hill notes “From the political side of things, some of the effects of the Espionage and Sedition Act and some of the civil rights issues that come up and understanding the effects on people,” had students weighing the similarities separated by a century.
Hill sums it up thus: “Connecting kids to those events in those ways allows history to be more meaningful for them and allows them to understand the humanity in every decision, both good and bad, that is made. People that make history are not just names in a book - they are husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers - all with their own perspectives and stories to tell, their own successes and failures, their own desire to do well. Once kids understand that, they can start to realize that they are a part of history and they can accomplish wonderful things in life, no matter where they come from.”
There is a big-picture aspect as well. Hill believes that studying past wars such as World War I may help young people value soldiers’ sacrifices while learning to recognize the warning signs of wars, seeing what can lead to war. Learning that point of view has the potential to defuse such situations in the future.
As a dedicated teacher, Hill understands the importance of sparking curiosity in his students. “If I can get them to want to learn more, then really I’ve done my job because when they go to study stuff on their own, that’s when they’ll really start to learn.”
More is on the horizon. Mr. Hill has planned to take his high school juniors to the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO, late this year.
Educators interested in Glimpses From The Great War for their classes are encouraged to visit www.GlimpsesFromTheGreatWar.us to contact the filmmaker for special access.