This project asks students to put themselves in the position of a soldier, medic, or nurse in the trenches during WWI. Their goal is to write a letter home describing conditions on the front using vocabulary words that help students grasp the historical context of World War I through a first person narrative. Projects like these are often better at getting what the enduring understandings are for the units they are associated with because it attempts to take the students figuratively out of the classroom, using critical thinking and their own innate creativity. Rather than teachers explaining the context using teacher-led instruction, students are required to imagine the context themselves. Once again they are in the driver's seat with their education and have the option to be as creative as they want and to choose what point of view they want to write from.
Writing is a skill that I want students to take with them when they move on from my classroom. Pairing that skill with vocabulary is a great way to incorporate more than one skill within a unit. Our lessons for this week were aligned with what the project asked of the students in terms of vocabulary which is helpful for ELL students and students with learning difficulties. You’ll notice the students have less freedom here because they are required to use a given set of words, but they still have space to get creative. Although this project was assigned in a social studies class there is an opportunity for cross curriculum (English and Social Studies) learning here. In some cases, this combination of creativity and content knowledge is difficult, but here I believe they blend together in a productive way.
As teachers we are required to get through a lot of information during the course of a school year and unless they are history or English literature enthusiasts, they aren’t likely to be as excited about the content as teachers might be. In fact, students are often left feeling bored and disconnected from the content. One important way to combat this boredom is to have them engage with content in new and more engaging ways such as creative writing. As Hilve Firek writes in Creative Writing in the Social Studies Classroom: Promoting Literacy and Content Learning, “Among adolescents, the urge to create is strong. However, today’s test centered curriculum tends to beat that urge to submission. As educators, we must encourage students’ creative energies and enable them to engage with content in new and stimulating ways.” In the case of WWI it is unlikely that students will feel connected to the content in any meaningful way unless they do so in ways that force them to create or actively engage with the content. Students likely don’t have any concept of what living in a trench is like (because who really does?), but they may be able to grasp it a bit better by putting themselves in the position of a young soldier or nurse in those trenches.
The results that we got from this project were positive, even though I had my concerns that the students would do the bare minimum by copying or mimicking the examples I gave them. The enduring understanding for the week was to grasp what the trench warfare of WWI was really like so for them to not fully grasp the context or historical reality of the war would’ve been alarming. I won’t say that every student produced exemplary work, but given the amount of effort and participation we’ve gotten from them this year, I came away feeling like we got through to those students who were receptive all year. We went through great lengths for them to grasp the importance of context to them so that they would write as if they were someone else. At one point I played background noises from the trenches in WWI.
Looking at the project through the lens of my teaching vision, I believe that it is indicative of the type of work I see my future students engaging in. This project did a great job of letting the students do the work on their own. The week that we worked on this project had very little lecture time and the lectures that I did give were only really to provide the students with some background information and context so that they were able to understand what they should be writing about. Although I did provide an example, it was really up to the students to write in a way that demonstrated their understanding of life in the trenches. The fact that it also had the added bonus of tying in vocabulary skills only adds to the importance of having creative ways to teach students skills.