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Four Questions for Kevin Delaney

"History often seems distant and removed from teenagers’ everyday lives"

By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

Kevin Delaney, of Wayland MA, is one of those High School History teachers that you wished you had growing up. He thinks outside the box, he tries to make classwork relevant for his students, and he truly loves the topic of History. One day, the head of the local veterans organization gave Kevin 100+ handwritten letters written by a Doughboy to his folks in 1917-1919. The letters appear to chronicle his entire experience in the Great War. Kevin decided to use this amazing local resource -- and turn it into a memorable class project. As a result, Kevin's students are about to embark on a journey to research and write the story of this Doughboy, using all the letters and much more.  Kevin fills us in on this great project.

You and your students have a very unique project that is getting underway. What are you doing?

Kevin DelaneyKevin DelaneyOver the years I have worked closely with both the Wayland Historical Society and local veterans groups, and several months back, a fellow named John Dyer, a Korean War era vet, handed me a collection of 100+ letters written by a Doughboy to his parents. Long story, but Herman Allen’s letters appear to chronicle his entire war experience from 1917-1919. Based on the samples I’ve read, they tell a vivid story of everyday life of a private in the AEF; and he was a good boy, writing home once or twice a week for almost two years! His mother clearly treasured his words, carefully saving the letters until they fell on my lap 100 years later.

Like we have done on several previous projects since 2001, students will research and write Herman Allen’s life story, using the letter collection, census records from ancestry.com, period newspaper articles, Town Reports, and more. When we conclude, we will have published his biography online, complete with all of the records and letters, for everyone to see.

As of this writing, I have just finished scanning the collection, some 240 jpegs, so that student teams can easily and collaboratively use the sources without damaging the originals. It is important, however, that kids get to touch and read the actual letters too, for as any historian will tell, there is something transportive about physically manipulating remnants of the past, in this case what a soldier so lovingly composed in France a century ago.

 

How did this project get started?

Letter 500One of Herman Allen’s lettersI have been doing project-based learning for years, and since 2001 my students have built an eight-volume local history archive called the Wayland High School History Project (whshistoryproject.org). The basic approach gets students taking on the role as historians, discovering, writing, and publishing what they find. It’s quite astonishing what kids have uncovered over the years, which helps them see in microcosm national trends and developments of past periods. I’m inspired by what historian Jill Lepore asserts: “History is the art of making an argument about the past by telling stories accountable to evidence.” The projects combine analytical and narrative history, and I have found that when young people morph into amateur historians, they both master content and hone a wide range of thinking and collaboration skills. Meanwhile, they authentically contribute to the historical record in memory-based community service projects.

Your students have uncovered some remarkable stories through your research. Tell us about some of them.

This year’s project is the third in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the First World War. In 2015 we focused on the home front in 1915 as war raged abroad. We wanted to know just how citizens in our area responded to the tenor and trends of the times, and discovered the amazing story of Jessica Henderson, a radical suffragist, political radical, and war opponent (one of her sons fought---we even uncovered her Bureau of Investigation file!).

Last year we wanted to learn about the men from town who joined the ranks, especially the four who never made it home and whose names are now on commemorative road signs and bear silent witness to busy intersections in town. One in particular, Charles Alward, has quite a story. As we excavated aspects of his life, we discovered a reference to a war journal he kept, stored in the Massachusetts National Guard Archives in Concord. We contacted the people there and made arrangements, with our scanner, to visit. Alward’s entire war journal is now posted on his page; when reading, you can see his death approaching like a freight train. The archives also hold the telegrams notifying his parents of his tragic end, as well as the original letter his mother wrote, respectfully asking for her lost son’s body (all posted on our site). He did make it home, and now rests in a small Wayland burial ground. There’s much more posted, but those are a couple of highlights.

Why is this important for you to do this? What do you want your students to take away from this extraordinary experience?
My experience is that history often seems distant and removed from teenagers’ everyday lives. Too often they see history as mere facts to memorize and then provide back to their teachers on tests. What I think project-based history can do is help students understand the process of constructing the past, that there we make choices of omission and inclusion. They learn the so-called 21st century skills of inquiry, creativity and collaboration. As importantly, taking an approach that involves storytelling about individuals’ lives has a humanizing effect; students readily gain a deep level of historical empathy by getting to know people who don’t make the typical textbook. There are a lot of creative ways to effectively teach history, but this is the one that works best for me.

 

LeRoy

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