As we moved closer to Veterans Day, I began to realize that very few of my seventh graders had any inkling of the importance of the holiday. We read a few articles and watched a few videos, but World War I, President Wilson, and armistice were foreign topics for these children of the new millennium.
In recent years, I have seen an alarming decrease in the amount of history knowledge that our children receive. They know little of the continuity of events which shaped their country. History lessons are taught piecemeal and out of context – if at all. Most of my students could not tell you the difference between the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and either of the World Wars. The majority cannot place them correctly on a timeline of U.S. history.
Therefore, I incorporate a great deal of history into my writing lessons. Sure, we talk about nouns and verbs and prepositional phrases, but there is so much more that needs to be discussed to build the necessary background knowledge necessary for in-depth, authentic writing pieces.
That is why, this Veterans Day, I decided to focus on the Vietnam War. After all, it’s only been 44 years since troops were pulled out of South Vietnam. The topic is still relevant.
Or so I thought.
Only one of my students had any clue about the war. One of 150!
This was the war that raged during my childhood and my teen years. This was the war that my father joined in 1968. This was the war that took the life of my friend’s father who was in country at the same time.
I immediately gave a mini-lesson on the history of Vietnam and of the unrest there. I explained why the U.S. government had felt it was necessary to send troops to Southeast Asia. I introduced the topic of peaceful protests to share the story of how everyday citizens banded together to pressure their governmental leaders to eventually withdraw its troops.
My students sat respectfully and nodded their heads. They answered most of my follow-up questions correctly. But there was no emotional connection. After all, this was a war that ended nearly a half-century ago. Many teenagers today have a hard time connecting with something that happened a half an hour ago.
So, I introduced a writing assignment to get them connected.
I shared with my students the story of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. We read some amazing articles. We watched some amazing videos. I shared pictures of me at the traveling wall when it had come through my city. I passed around a rubbing I had made of my friend’s father’s name.
I wanted each to learn about the war through the life of one of the more than 58,000 soldiers represented on that wall.
I directed my students to a wonderful site called “The Virtual Wall.” (http://www.virtualwall.org/) I had them search for someone with their same last name. If they were unable to find anyone with that surname, they could use their mother’s maiden name or the last name of another relative.
A research guide/note-taking page was provided. Basic biographical information was requested for their soldier: Date of birth, branch of service, MOS (job), date tour started, location in Vietnam, date of death, details of death, location on the Wall, and personal remembrances from those left behind.
Immediately, I was bombarded with excited exclamations:
“Mr. Ramsey! My soldier was born on my birthday!”
“Mr. Ramsey! My soldier died on my birthday!”
“Mr. Ramsey! My soldier has my first name too!”
“Mr. Ramsey! My soldier was killed when his jeep crashed!
Every class period was like this. Excited calls from my kids to hurry to their desks to see what they had discovered about their fallen soldier.
This is how history education needs to be.
“Mr. Ramsey! This lady wrote that my soldier was the first ever ask her out on a date! What’s a sock hop?”
“Mr. Ramsey! My soldier’s nephew wrote about how he wishes his uncle could still be alive and hanging out with his other uncles! How sad!”
Lots of history mini-lessons as I bounced from desk to desk!
The learning objective for my lesson was the writing of an expository essay. I informed the kids that they would be writing epitaphs for their soldiers based upon their research. I told them that I wanted their words to honor these fallen heroes and to show others that they had been real human beings who had had their lives cut short.
Before writing, I had them pull out their note sheet. I asked them to stand if their soldier fit each of the characteristics that I called out.
“Please stand if your soldier was 22 or younger when he was killed…” Nearly everyone in every class stood.
“Please stand if your soldier died within a month of arriving in Vietnam…” About five stood in each class. In the last class of the day, one girl shouted, “My soldier died the same day he arrived…and that was in his birth month!”
“Please stand if your soldier was married…” Very few in all classes stood. “So, basically, they never had a chance to get married and to start their own families, right?” I asked.
“Please stand if your soldier was in the Army…” Nearly half of each class stood. “Marines?” Nearly all of the other half stood.
I asked each student to look at their note sheet and to read aloud their soldier’s name.
“I want you to realize,” I said, “that for some of these men, this is the first time in many years that their names have been spoken. For many, there have been no visitors to their panel on the wall. No one rubs their fingers across their engraved names. No one stops to say a prayer for them.”
Micah piped in, almost in a whisper. “It’s like they’ve been forgotten,” he said.
“Exactly!” I exclaimed. “Sure…this assignment is about getting you to write an expository essay. Sure…this assignment is all about the Vietnam War. But there is more to my reason for having you do this.”
I continued. “Look at your paper again and read your soldier’s name. You are now the keeper of that name. It is your job to keep his memory alive, to keep his existence in your soul. You are his keeper. You must never allow him to be forgotten. Even when you are an adult, I want you to think about this man…and all the others on the wall. Please don’t let them be forgotten.”
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2019.