Students Take Experimental WWII Curriculum to England
By Tamara Bunnell, Northwest School
The Northwest School (NWS) is a long-standing member and partner of the World Affairs Council. Focused on graduating global-minded citizens, the school is actively involved in a number of global initiatives ranging from delivering curriculum with a global perspective to providing opportunities to study abroad to offering a boarding program for international students. Tamara Bunnell, a Humanities teacher at the Northwest School, describes one of the global education initiatives she and two other NWS teachers will be working on this summer.
What makes for the best kind of learning experience? What right components merge to create those magical moments that move or shake us so profoundly it causes a permanent shift in our understanding? And how, as teachers, do we create those moments for our students? For those of us who work in education, these are the kinds of questions that keep us in a state of constant reflection, always looking to improve what we do, and sometimes, that path of reflection takes us to surprising places. For Laura Ferri and I, this summer it will take us to England!
This summer, a committed group of Northwest School students and three NWS teachers (Laura and I, along with NWS dialect coach Michael Loggins) will be involved in a project that exemplifies the multilayered way students learn at NWS. We know students are more likely to learn when there is a personal connection to the material, when we engage more than one mode of learning, and when what we ask our students to do fits in to a clear and larger purpose. Each of these things are present as we embark on a new NWS international trip to England. Our major focus will be performing an original play about the experiences of and interactions between American Airmen stationed in England during World War II, their Royal Air Force counterparts, and the people of England. Often referred to as the “friendly invasion”, the huge influx of Americans stationed in England during the war resulted in countless lasting international friendships, both military and civilian. Along the way, we will learn about the war by interviewing those who experienced it, and by visiting key historical sites related to the themes of the play.
The trip has been two years in the making, beginning with my participation in a three-week intensive summer residency for teachers at the American Air Museum in Cambridge, England. The AAM, which is part of the Imperial War Museum Duxford, is partially focused on telling the story of the Eighth American Army Air Force, the “bomber boys” stationed in England during the war who predominantly flew Seattle-built Boeing B-17s. Approximately 300,000 such men went to England during the war. Over 30,000 did not come back. Because they are in a race against time to preserve and pass on the stories of the remaining veterans of the USAAF for a new generation, the AAM staff have been working since 2012 to partner British and American schools and students in pursuing this goal. Following my experience in England, as part of our study of World War II in the 7th Grade Humanities program, my co-teacher Julie Kim and I began working with our students to conduct oral history interviews with local veterans and others who experienced the war. The interviews have been profoundly moving for everyone involved, especially for our students. Students realize the gravity of war as they hear stories of life, death, sacrifice and heroism in ways not possible through the impersonal lens of a textbook.
When we began the project, I knew right away we would have an ally in our colleague Laura Ferri. Though her official department is Theatre, Laura is as much a History teacher as I am, and in the course of her 20 plus years at NWS, she has written numerous historical plays, many of them about elements of WWII. I suspected she would be interested in writing a play about the USAAF in England during the war, and I was right. The first version of that play was performed by Laura’s 2012-13 Advanced Theatre students at school and also at Seattle’s Museum of Flight in conjunction with the interviews that were happening in 7th Grade Humanities, and all the students involved in the interviews either saw or were involved in it. We saw valuable learning taking place, and the experience was particularly impactful for those students who were involved in both the play and the interviews. By the end of that school year, we wanted to see if we could take things even further. We wanted to do it all again, this time building more scenes directly out of the stories we heard in the interviews, and structuring the play in such a way that each time new information was gleaned, the student actors could work it in to the play right away. Furthermore, we wanted to tour the play and reach a larger audience, while at the same time being able to see and experience the actual places many of the veterans we met had described. Yes, we wanted to take the show on the road — in England!
One of the wonderful things about teaching at The Northwest School is that there is always room and support for innovation. What we hoped to do was groundbreaking in many ways. We wanted to take a mixed age group that would include middle schoolers, we wanted to travel in the summer, and we wanted the trip itself to be interdisciplinary in nature rather than the reflection of one particular department. None of these elements have ever been part of a NWS trip in the way we were proposing, and there was reason for that to give the school pause. Nonetheless, after careful consideration regarding the potential challenges we might face, we were given the green light to move forward with the project.
Many months and much planning later, we are poised to leave on that trip with a group of students who have been working and collaborating with us and each other nearly every day for much of the school year, on their own time. They have been working on a new version of that original play, written by Laura. This new version is a writing collaboration between Laura and the cast members, and inspired in large part by the interviews Northwest School 7th graders have conducted over the last two years. Though much of our focus was on the Eighth USAAF, we were honored, too, to hear from women who built the planes, those who served in the Pacific and other theaters, individuals who experienced the war in Japan and in the Japanese-American incarceration camps, and those who fought on sea and land. Many of those stories have also been incorporated into the play.
At The Northwest School, we make it our mission to graduate students with historical, scientific, artistic, and global perspective. This project incorporates each of those elements, as well as numerous others that are cornerstones of a NWS education. We believe in cross-disciplinary education, and this project is cross-disciplinary in every way, involving the Humanities and the Arts most particularly, but also Math and Science via the aviation components. It will be cross-graded, with students from several grades participating, and cross-generational, with at least three distinct generations working together. We believe in respect and community engagement, and can think of no better way to honor the people whose stories we will be telling than to hear about their experiences in person, then bring those stories to a larger audience. This is the very highest form of community engagement: personal, intimate, and real. We believe in global education, and the project is global in nature, examining the war experiences among and cooperation between at least two nations. Finally, we believe in collaboration, which has been woven throughout every stage of the project, involving numerous individuals and organizations both here and in England.
We are so proud of the work our students have done, and we are certain there are many magical moments to come. We hope you who are reading this now will keep up with our journey by following the blog we will be keeping along the way, which you can find at http://nwsinengland.wordpress.com.
Go there now to find additional background, suggestions for related reading and viewing material, and some of the wonderful reflections written by this year’s 7th graders following their interviews. Many thanks to the numerous NWS families who have been instrumental in helping us connect with so many relevant interviewees, and above all, thanks to those individuals who have offered their time and their personal stories, often not easy to tell, so that we may understand what came before us. Above all else, with this project, we honor you.