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History comes to life for students

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January 14, 2011 |

High school students generally experience history in the form of textbooks and memoirs, documentaries and movies. But every now and then, history comes to life in very real way, and for some Da Vinci High School students, that was definitely the case in recent months.

Juniors at Da Vinci embark each year on an America at War project, which involves months of collaborative group efforts at producing movie pilots based on war-themed books, as well as web sites that provide historical context for those pilots. It is a lengthy unit that combines both their English and History curriculums.

This year, they added something else: They interviewed area war veterans, adding a whole new dimension to the project.

In doing so, they also contributed to the nations permanent archives, as the interviews were recorded and sent off to the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which is collecting and storing veterans oral histories.

And while the students work will become lasting contributions to Americas historical archives, their efforts also contributed to a new understanding about war that they didnt have before, Da Vinci teacher Tyler Millsap said.

It internalized what they learned about war, from the chronology to the battles to the consequences and aftermath, he said.

And given some of their experiences, how could it not?

One group of four students, for example, interviewed a military psychologist who had spent time in combat himself but who had never before talked about what he had been through, Millsap said.

He spent his whole career listening to other soldiers trauma and issues, Millsap explained. And he himself had never gone through this… it was still bottled up. He chose this group of kids to unload on.

He had so much to say, in fact, that what was supposed to be a 30- to 90-minute interview took up far more than that. Sudents not only used up all the available memory on their video camera, they had to return for a second day, using up all the memory once more.

There were tears, Millsap said. It was very profound. It was a life-changing experience for these students.

The psychologist was just one of a number of area veterans who had never really talked in depth about their war experiences before meeting with students.

After the Enterprise first reported on the project in November and included a request for more Vietnam and Gulf war veterans to participate, Millsap received more volunteers than he could use.

They said they thought this was really worthwhile, that they would love to help out, Millsap said. Some said they had avoided ever talking about it, and thought maybe they should.

During a debriefing last week, students reported that despite their best efforts, a number of veterans still struggled to talk about what they had been through.

Describing the World War II veteran his group interviewed, student Yoshi Moore said: The things he saw hit him hard, and he didnt want them to resurface.

Added student Alex May: He remembered everything quite well, but he seemed like hed locked it down, like he never wanted to talk about it with anybody.

Other veterans powered through their memories.

Candace Scalabrino interviewed a veteran who had witnessed the devastation of concentration camps.

You could see in his face and his tone that it hurt him to talk about it, she said.

Many veterans had plenty to say, and in doing so profoundly changed students understanding of war.

Those who would describe themselves as anti-war, for example, were forced to at least think about war critically, Millsap said, as they listened to veterans who had not just invested their lives and believed in what they had done, but could recount the humanitarian roles they believed they played.

It broadened their perspective, Millsap said of his students.

And it gave many a new appreciation for the veterans efforts.

I have massive respect for these men and women, said student Jesse Karban.

The whole process of interviewing veterans also forced many students out of their comfort zones.

It really helped a lot of kids get out of their shells… go out in the world and do things they werent really comfortable with, Millsap said of the interviews.

Millsap, who worked on the project along with Da Vinci colleagues Hayleigh Munoz and Ian Stevenson, hopes to repeat the veteran interviews next year, provided they can find some fresh veterans.

Were certainly going to try, he said.

Also participating in the recruitment of veterans and the training of students were the Woodland branch of the American Red Cross and U.S. Rep. Mike Thompsons office. To learn more about the Veterans History Project, visit http://www.loc.gov/vets.

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Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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