By Shane Gower
Who doesn’t enjoy a chance to relax and let go during the summer? Teaching is hard work and summers need to be filled with plenty of time for vacation! But one of my favorite things about summer is the chance to do professional development that can’t be done during the school year. Every teacher I know is either taking a class, reading a book, or just doing some lesson planning at some point during the summer. This is very valuable of course but I want to tell you about the PD I took part in this summer that was some of the best I have ever participated in!
I received an email in mid-May from the Education Director at National History Day. I knew her from my participation in both the Understanding Sacrifice program and the Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Program. She told there was a possibility of a last minute summer PD opportunity on WW1 but it would require me to go to Europe from June 28-July 7 and get myself to and from Logan airport in Boston. After conferring with my family I jumped at the chance. Due to how late the Federal Budget had been passed, the programming planned for summer 2018 was funded, but it left no time to recruit and vet new teachers for the program which is why she turned to those of us who had participated previously. The next thing I knew travel arrangements were being made and I was doing research on 2 Maine soldiers who served in the First World War. This summer PD program was asking us to publish 2 biographies of Maine soldiers who served in the war (these will be published here in the Spring of 2019). Additionally we needed to create a lesson plan inspired by our research and our trip to be published in a book of resources for teachers also in Spring 2019. Lastly, we needed to compose and deliver a eulogy for each of our Silent Heroes. One would be this summer at one of the American Cemeteries in France we would be visiting, the other would be at one of the National Cemeteries here in the US we will be visiting in the Fall.
I chose my 4th cousin, once removed, Millard Corson of Madison, ME and Percy Rancourt of North Vassalboro, ME for my Silent Hero profiles. I have learned some information about both, but I would love to connect with the families of both. If anyone has information, please email me: email@example.com.
Millard Corson was in the Yankee Division and was killed by Machine Gun fire in a wheat field near Chateau Thierry in July 1918 (we actually saw the field where we believe he was killed). Corson is buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France. Percy Rancourt was in a Machine Gun Battalion and fought at Chateau Thierry and the Meuse-Argonne. He died in 1960 and is buried at the Togus National Cemetery in Chelsea, ME.
After doing some research, we were off on our adventure. We started in Belgium where we met with Belgian teachers to talk about teaching World War One and potential exchange trips. We visited the Flanders Field American Cemetery and a local Museum before making our way to Reims in France. Next we visited the Aine-Marne American Cemetery and the nearby Belleau Wood Battlefield. Famously Belleau Wood is known for the US Marines holding the line and stopping the Germans from breaking through to Paris in June 1918.
One of the highlights of the trip was to walk in the trenches once held by Americans in Belleau Wood.We next visited Chateau Thierry and the Monument the US built after the war that over-looks the city.
During our trip we had an Art Professor with us who works at the National Portrait Gallery and she told us about the art and architecture at the Memorials and Cemeteries. It was really interesting and raised many questions about memory and meaning.
The Montsec American Monument over-looks St. Mihiel and the area where Americans made a big breakthrough just before the Armistice in the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne.
We next visited the Oise-Aine American Cemetery and the grave of my Silent Hero. It was a moving experience to deliver a eulogy at his grave site. I can’t wait to learn more about him and what he did during the war.
There were 24 teachers from around the country on this trip and at each cemetery we visited, we each took turns visiting the grave of our Silent Hero. By the end I had heard 24 eulogies and I was honestly moved by each and every one.
Visiting the American-related sites was amazing, but of course the US didn’t join the First World War until the final year of the conflict. To truly understand the War we had to spend some time learning about the War before the US became a combatant. So we visited the area where the Battle of Verdun happened. Arguably this is the site of the worst battle in human history. We started out by visiting the Village that no longer exists. Fleury was once a thriving French village of 500 people with various farmers and businesses. Thanks to the Battle of Verdun it was completely wiped off of the Earth. All there is there now are craters and concrete markers to tell you where homes and businesses once stood. This is jarring to say the least!
Next we went to the Ossuary at Verdun. In front are the graves of 20,000 French soldiers that could be identified. Inside the Ossuary are the bones of 130,000 French and German soldiers who could not be identified. Just a fraction of the 900,000 who died in this battle. To read about it is one thing, but to see it makes such an impression that its hard to explain.
While it was even more amazing to walk in some German trenches. The Germans built permanent trenches for the long haul and so theirs have withstood the test of time much better!
We ended our trip staying in Metz and visiting the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial near Paris. The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the largest in Europe with 15,000 Americans buried there. The Lafayette Escadrille Memorial contains the graves of 22 Americans who flew planes for France in the war and were killed before the US entered the war.
This trip was truly fantastic and would not have been possible without National History Day, the National Cemetery Administration, the American Battle Monuments Commission, and the WW1 Centennial Commission.
My World War One Summer was just beginning! I then spent a week in a Gilder-Lehrman Institute for American History Summer Seminar in Kansas City, MO at the National World War One Museum and Memorial. Gilder-Lehrman offers many of these programs each summer located around the country. Each one bring in a known scholar for the week to lecture on a specific topic and incorporates local museums or historic sites. Dr. Jay Winter was the historian for this week called World War One and Its Aftermath. The Museum is loaded with artifacts and does a great job of telling the story of the war. We had a tremendous opportunity to see and handle historical artifacts and also to interact with a historian who has spent his life researching and writing about the First World War.
I feel very fortunate about and inspired by these opportunities and I can’t wait to bring them into my classroom! If any of this is of interest to you I encourage you to look to Understanding Sacrifice and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute for Summer PD next year!