Students preserve history of local veterans
By VVMF Education intern, Rae Rudzinski.
“I’ve been teaching for a long time,” says Susan Tomlinson, a U.S. history teacher at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, “and I know the most amazing things can happen, but even I was surprised.”
Tomlinson’s voice exudes pride when she speaks about her students’ recent participation in VVMF’s Hometown Heroes Service Learning Project, and rightfully so. Using the curriculum on VVMF’s website, Tomlinson led her 11th grade U.S. history students through two different projects: “Preserving Veterans’ Personal Stories,” which encourages students to preserve the oral histories of local veterans through research and personal interviews, and “Understanding Healing Through Memorials,” which encourages schools to take field trips to The Wall in Washington D.C., or, as in Tomlinson’s case, to visit another local war memorial.
How Tomlinson learned of VVMF’s Hometown Heroes project was, at least for the veterans in her community and for her students, serendipitous. “It was through the National History Club newsletter, actually. Information about the Hometown Heroes project was just in the bottom right-hand corner of the email, and it definitely sounded like something I would be interested in.”
And for Tomlinson and her high school students, that initial interest proliferated into something quite extraordinary. Having designed and facilitated a successful and moving World War II exhibit in her school’s media center to preserve those veterans’ personal stories, “I realized I didn’t have stories from the veterans of Vietnam,“ she explained. Using the Hometown Heroes lesson plans, Tomlinson and her students got to work.
And with that, Franklin Central High School’s Hometown Heroes project “took on a life of its own.” Inviting local Vietnam veterans to their high school, groups of five to seven students conducted interviews with each veteran to record the veterans’ personal stories and experiences with the Vietnam War. On top of sharing their personal stories, the veterans also brought in personal artifacts from the war- their own letters, pictures, and other personal keepsakes- to share with the student groups. While some students interviewed, the school’s media specialist worked with other groups on computers and scanners to archive the veterans’ personal artifacts. Meanwhile, other students conducted research on any veterans featured on VVMF’s “Wall of Faces” who did not yet have a photo tied to their profile. “So while not everyone could be a part of the interviews, every student had a role and a task they were responsible for,” added Tomlinson. Without a doubt, she adds, not one job was better or more important than another.
Through interviewing, recording, and archiving the veterans’ stories and artifacts, not only do students make the personal accounts of Vietnam veterans accessible so that future generations can hear directly from them veterans themselves, but the project also brings history lessons to life.
“I can tell my students anything, and have them read everything- but when it comes from the mouth of the person who is involved, it makes it real,” Tomlinson explained. “Even if I play past recorded interviews, show them pictures, or have them read the hand written stuff- to have the person right there in front of them, with an Agent Orange T-shirt on, talking about how this summer he’s going for chemo…”
As far as the projects’ final outcomes, “We’re still working on it,” Tomlinson explained. “What we’ll do is take the recorded interviews with the veterans and put them into a final project, which will be given to the local historical society, to the veterans themselves, and a copy will go the school archives.”
The project at Franklin Central High School was so successful that the spirit of honoring Vietnam veterans has caught on. The school’s radio station even began hosting a special show for Vietnam veterans on Veteran’s Day. In addition to the radio show, Tomlinson’s History Club also hosts their own “Wall of Fame” to honor any students’ friends and family members who have served, or are currently serving, in the military. But this year, in keeping with the theme of Hometown Heroes archiving and preserving history, students will bind together pieces of the “Wall of Fame” with the Vietnam veteran interviews. Tomlinson and her students hope to gift these bound books to the veterans and to their local historical society.
Tomlinson and her students have also built some lasting relationships with the Vietnam veterans who visited their school, staying in touch with one veteran who is currently working hard to get pictures for Indiana‘s own “Wall of Faces”.
While the Hometown Heroes project was a great success for Tomlinson and her students, this U.S. history teacher is quick to point out that these lessons can be successfully implemented by any teacher in any setting. The lessons featured on the VVMF website “can give teachers ideas, and according to your time schedule, students, and the veterans who come in, you have to figure out how that can work for you. Just make sure everybody has a task.” She also applauds the website’s downloadable lesson plan book, “Echoes from the Wall.” “I read a lot of stuff and looked at a lot of curriculum on the Vietnam War, and ‘Echoes from the Wall’ has, by far, the most useful info packed into one source.”
“You know, I grew up in the 70’s,” she explained, “and I never had a class on Vietnam. I went to school with guys who went to Vietnam and I knew them when they came back, and it was just a totally different experience for them than what I see today. So I thought that the veterans deserved to have their stories told.”
Certainly, Tomlinson is right.
Learn about the Hometown Heroes curriculum here.