"There will be many challenges that we will not even foresee, but I believe that step is essential in creating a 'monumental' project."
Along with Nicky, both Sungjoon, Tamar, and Helen reflected on the recent visit to the Suresnes American Cemetery and the start of their research in the week thereafter. Sungjoon expressed awe at the number of lives and stories there waiting to be explored. The reality of the research challenge pressed upon him: "I am optimistic to do research on our soldier, Melvin Stewart and explore the journey he went through during World War One. However, one of my concerns is that we won't be able to find enough information on our soldier, due to the lack of sources, but I hope that is not the case."
He then highlighted a skill he'd worked on in class that might help:
"During the school year, we practiced many skills regarding research in our Social Studies class. One of the many skills that I think is important is "Critical Exploration". On our first class, we sat down in a circle and looked at famous paintings. We observed those painting for a while, then we mentioned what we noticed and what we wondered about the painting. First of all, through telling what we noticed, we could see things in the painting that we did not see before, which broadened our perspective. This will be important in our research, because if we miss out on important sources that give different perspectives than the norm, our research will have holes. Second of all, through sharing our wonders about the painting, it brought up the essential questions that if answered, would give us the whole story behind that specific painting. The same applies to our research; if we have a solid base of questions that are well thought out, it will guide our research in a beneficial way that moves the project forward."
In fact, students engaged in question formulation to get started. Here is a list of questions formulated by just one group of students, using just the information on the memorial cross of Manuel Dorre:
In reflecting on how many questions we all left the cemetery with Tamar immediately made a connection to the hit musical "Hamilton" and the message embedded in the quote below:
"Entering the Suresnes American Cemetery, and seeing all of the stone Crosses and Stars of David, made me think about all of these soldiers who died during the war. They had no control if they will live, if they will die, and who will tell their story. Under every name, under every grave, there is a soldier that his/ her story has never been told before..."
Tamar shared Sungjoon's concerns on the challenges accompanying this research opportunity but also reflected on the value of the challenge:
"Usually, we study the past in school and also outside of school using books, online information and others… We are already given the information and we just need to read it in order to study the past. This time, we are just like historians. We are not given the information and we study the past by doing a research project where we need to gather the information and write the history and the information ourselves."
Tamar displayed some conscientious historical thinking in anticipating the work ahead of her:
"I think that while doing my research and analysing my information, I need to be always open to other perspectives and other points of view about the war. I do not know if the soldier that I am researching ( in my case Raymond A. Bennett) actually fought in the war to bring peace, fought in the war because he hated the other allies or fought in the war because he was forced to and he didn’t think that the war was necessary. I need to look at all of the information and points of view that are placed in front of me and create my own point of view and thoughts about the gathered information. This is what is good about our project. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, we get to write the history and we get to create our own thoughts and points of view about the soldier that we are researching."
And considering the many perspectives involved in such history, Tamar concluded by noting the importance of looking at this historical moment fully and honestly:
Helen confronted some of this difficult history in a big research day last week, working with her partner Manuel to find information on Edward Wolff. They were puzzled by a news item they found and had a powerful moment that displays the opportunities for empathy and ownership of this history afforded by this approach to studying it. They found this news item in the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News of 14 September, 1918.
Note the eagerness with which they strive to figure out not just the information detailed in the source but what it meant for the people, namely the families implicated.
Their dialogue yielded a lot of confusion and, for Helen, a connection to her Advanced Theater class, which she reflects upon below:
“The Hunting of the Snark” is the play I am currently studying in Advanced Theatre: a play about the Britons. The Britons are a gang, but not like any other; it’s the children that stayed in London instead of being sent off to the countryside with a train in the Second World War. Even if we are studying World War One soldiers, the play brings an element to the War that we need as well: empathy. All the characters have different ways to cope with their fears and anxieties about their mothers working in factories, and not knowing if their fathers are dead or not.
It was the first day of researching our soldier, Private Edward J. Wolff. We found an article on his death, but my team and I were perplexed; it was a snippet of the newspaper, and it talked about Edward Wolff and Edward Wolff Jr. We looked at it for a while, thought about possible ways of how this could happen, and then we realised; they found a body, identified it as a Edward Wolff; but they didn’t know which one. All those casualty lists, they’re people that died, but all I could think about was Wolff’s. Can you imagine being a mother of one of those two men, not knowing if your boy in France is dead, or alive and fighting; which one’s worse? For your child to be dead, or keep fighting and might not make it back?
In the play, Barmy, has the same problem the other way around. His father is most likely dead, and he lies to his friends about his father; that he’s off in a top secret mission for the Queen, or that he’s in a safari, and he tries very hard to convince them. The deeper you get into the play, and the character’s mind, you realise that he’s not lying to his friends, he’s actually trying to convince himself that his dad, his role model, his hero, is alive and well out there. A really powerful part of the play is when they horse around and play; they are children, like us, trying to have fun, trying to live a normal life, but when the young man with a bicycle rides down the road and tells you your father might not live from his wounds, what do you do? You go play hide and seek with the children in the neighborhood.
Our introduction to World War One in social studies, was reading poems written by the soldiers, about the War. While I am against the romanticization of war, making bullets sound like waves crashing against the shore, and the hum of the engines being like a lullaby, they are what make the people keep fighting. If you love what you do, you keep doing it. Art, like poems, sketches, plays, and others, is something only humans have, so humans are moved by it. The little poem written at night in a tent by a soldier, it kept him going. Just like Barmy, he was trying to convince himself to love what he’s doing. Art keeps us sane, art makes us human.