They’ve been called the dumbest generation. A generation that not only does not care, but that actively chooses to ignore the lessons of the past.
As a high school history teacher, I hear this sort of commentary all the time.
But as a teacher, I also know better.
For I have seen teenagers — yes, those same teenagers we think don’t care — openly weep at the graves of soldiers to whom they are not even related. And when they do, I find that I do, too. Not particularly because I am moved by their genuine outpouring of emotion, which I am, but more because I can see their minds opening to the possibility that the world is a bigger place than they had known it to be, and that they are learning things that textbooks cannot teach and that I cannot hope to convey in a 75-minute class.
For most of my peers, a trip to Europe is a fun family vacation or a romantic trip for two. But for me, it has become an integral part of my job. Only when I go, I take dozens of teenagers with me. In my many years of teaching, I have come to realize that there is no substitute for seeing with one’s own eyes the crosses row on row.
My conviction that history is an experiential pursuit is based, in part, in my own past as the child of parents who escaped the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. When I returned from a visit there with my family in 1990, the stories my parents had told me, the books I had read, all started to make more sense. I understood in a way that I couldn’t have before.
In 2010, I decided my students needed that kind of first-hand experience, too, and I organized my first Tour of Remembrance for them. It was a chance for students, some who had never left their home town before, to travel to Europe to see key sites from the wars that shape the story of our country as much as that of those across the Atlantic.
To prepare, I began a home-exchange that allowed me to do some reconnaissance. Living for a month on the French-Belgian border town of Comines, France, my new “home” was a 30-minute drive to the Flanders region of Belgium and a perfect launching pad from which to explore significant sites of the First World War.
Armed with the information I needed to make the tour a reality, I returned with a renewed sense of commitment to both my teaching and students. But it’s not as simple as just loading kids onto a plane and herding them through battlefields. To help them understand what they are about to see, it’s necessary to do a tremendous amount of advance preparation — in addition to regular classroom work, students have to attend sessions at lunch time and after school. Each student is assigned a soldier to research and must find a piece of Canada to take with them overseas for that soldier’s grave.
But the extra work is all worth it. What unfolds on these trips is nothing short of life changing for both students and teachers.
I cannot fully explain my sense of pride as these young students willingly line up to sign cemetery registries with heartfelt messages of thanks.
Walking the site where John McCrae penned In Flanders Fields, entering a First World War trench in the Somme Valley, observing the eerie tranquility of the graves or standing on Vimy Ridge allows for endless organic teachable moments. And they are moments that can not take place in a classroom.
I am hopeful that every single Canadian student who has visited these places will forever observe the moment of silence on Nov. 11 with a greater understanding.
In a room that visitors can access after visiting the Canadian Experience Galleries at the Canadian War Museum, there is a plaque that asks guests to reflect by posing the question, “What will you do?”
Thankfully, for anyone stumped by this query, the answer stares them straight in the face: History is not just the story you read. It is the one you write. It is the one you remember or denounce or relate to others. It is not predetermined. Every action, every decision, however small, is relevant to its course. History is filled with horror, and replete with hope. You shape the balance.
I am confident that the students who have joined, and will join me on future tours to First World War sites in Europe could answer the question posed on that plaque, for in addition to all the things listed, history is also what you feel when you can see and hear and touch. And for my students, it’s not what will you do, so much as what did you do?
Actions speak louder than words.
Lest we forget.
—Text by Kathy Scheepers
Earl of March Secondary School Tour of Remembrance 2013 -
Vimy Ridge Pilgrimage
Click here for more information about EF Tours' 70th Anniversary commemorations of Victory in Europe and the Liberation of the Netherlands tour in May 2015.
This story originally appeared on Canada.com at http://ww1.canada.com/after-the-war/why-i-take-my-students-to-see-the-battlefields-of-the-great-war.