From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
A Teacher on Teaching WWI: Michael Sandstrom
On February 1st's edition of the WWI Centennial News Podcast, Episode 108, host Theo Mayer spoke with high school teacher and National History Day's Legacies of World War I participant Michael Sandstrom about his experiences teaching history, especially World War I history, to the current generation of high school students. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: Last week we were joined by National History Day Executive Director Kathy Gorn. But this week, we're going to go directly to where the rubber meets the road, as we're joined by a foot soldier in the campaign to win the mind share and interest of our youth in both history, and for the legacy of World War I. With us today is Michael Sandstrom, Social Science teacher at Chadron High School in northwestern Nebraska, about 20 minutes from the South Dakota border. Michael, welcome to the podcast.
Michael Sandstrom: Well thank you very much. It's great to be here.
Theo Mayer: So Michael, you're quite literally the first high school teacher that we've had on the program, and I'm really happy to speak with you.
Michael Sandstrom: Well thank you. I think education, as we can all agree, is a cornerstone of American democracy, and I appreciate what you guys do on a weekly basis.
Theo Mayer: Nowadays, how is history treated in high school at large? And then I want to talk about how World War I is treated in high schools in current curricula.
Michael Sandstrom: So I'll take the history one first, because I think we saw this alarming picture of what's going on nationally. We looked at science, math scores, and we kind of noticed this trend. And what ended up happening, in my opinion, was the putting of history on sort of a back burner. So I think where history is, and you can tell by the lowered scrutiny on standards at times, is marginalized to a degree. But if there's one subject that might be extremely important yet marginalized to the highest degree, it might be World War I. In my opinion that's because World War I is seen as just something that came before, but doesn't really affect the things that came later which, as your podcast will attest to, is certainly not the case.
Theo Mayer: Well, it's interesting that the whole STEM focus de-emphasized history. I didn't know that.
Michael Sandstrom: I do like to provide the precursor that I am from a small school in Western Nebraska, but I since have noticed that there's, in almost every school I've been in in Colorado and Nebraska, there seems to be a focus on those subjects more, and a little bit of a de emphasis, in my ... I think there's a thought now, you can look everything up like history on an iPhone. You know, well, if I need to know any of those sorts of facts, I can just look it up. So I see that as kind of a negative.
Theo Mayer: So Michael, what you're saying is that people think that history is fact.
Michael Sandstrom: Absolutely. And kids wonder, in my classroom, why the first few days or even weeks, we're talking about a lot of historical thinking skills and all sorts of different sourcing activities. And looking at the source; how does this work, who created it, that sort of thing. So it is a little bit different.
Theo Mayer: With the internet, how do you point your kids to primary sources?
Michael Sandstrom: Several different ways. I am a part of several different sites that have quality primary sources. Gilder Lehrman Institute is a very reputable site. I also use Sanford History Education Group. I point students to several different sites that are well documented and I trust very much, but at the same time, we talk quite frequently about how to find the primary sources that you want. So I depend a lot on hoping that you've instilled skills. I'm sure it's much like a parent attempting to instill certain lessons, and kids know you won't always be there. And so deciding what sources are quality sources, it's something we focus on in class.
Theo Mayer: And how long have you been involved with National History Day, or how are they involved with your school?
Michael Sandstrom: I started out in the Fifth Grade with a Jackie Robinson project, but since then, when I returned to Nebraska, I started doing the sponsorship for NHD again, so I've been with NHD as a sponsor at Regional and State competitions for about two years. We've sent anywhere from five to 10 kids the last few years, who compete at the Regional competition. And many make it to the State level, and several in the school have made it to National competitions. So National History Day's kind of played a part, especially in our Middle School levels, but also in our High School curriculum.
Theo Mayer: You were selected as one of 18 teachers, by National History Day, to participate in a deep study of World War I. Can you tell me about how you applied, and what the program is?
Michael Sandstrom: So I was fortunate enough to be a part of National History Day's Legacies of World War I course that they did throughout the fall, and I heard about the Memorializing the Fallen program, and essentially how the process works was it was a fairly simple application, but there were several different essays that you wrote on what you would provide to the program, what you hoped to gain from the program, what you hoped to bring home for students. And so, after completing those essays, I was notified in early December by Lynne O'Hare, the Director of Programs at National History Day, and was informed that I had been officially accepted as one of the 18 teachers.
Theo Mayer: So, what are you hoping to get out of the program?
Michael Sandstrom: I believe history is about passion, because kids don't always really understand or know why something would be important. I know this: if I've been to a place, I can really put place to a series of events or context, it really helps me and it thereby extends to the students. So my hope is to go to some of these battle sites and memorials that I've read about and heard about, and really be able to bring that back.
Theo Mayer: How will you bring some of that experience back to the students, specifically?
Michael Sandstrom: One way that I will do it is, I've found, for whatever reason, that pictures are extremely powerful. And not just photographs from the internet; things I've taken. If I can explain exactly where you walked, or how I specifically walked in these areas. But in addition, the research. As I've been getting into my Silent Hero profile- his name is William Herman- I've been noticing a lot of skills that I've learned picking up in research. Specific research that I feel can help a lot of the NHD students potentially with their projects in the future.
Theo Mayer: Yeah, it's interesting. So, his name is Herman, which is a German surname, which has got to have some kind of effect in what happened to him.
Michael Sandstrom: It's very interesting. His father was born in Austria in 1861, and emigrated to the United States. Spoke German, eventually learned English. But his mother had two German parents. She was born in Wisconsin. But he specifically had four German speaking grandparents. And I just find that interesting, because when he was called to the service, he had to have known he would be fighting people from a kindred nation. And so, the experience that he had, coming from Alliance, Nebraska, fighting against people who, one generation before had been his family, is just an amazing fact.
Theo Mayer: Organizations like the World War I Centennial Commission and so forth, we're trying really hard to assist you and your students from an educational standpoint. What else is it that an organization like us can do to help?
Michael Sandstrom: In my opinion, it's about introducing them to resources, and kind of giving them some training or at least the desire to get the training. I really like the goals with the World War I Memorial and actually getting a space for Americans to think and ponder about the sacrifices by our Armed Services men and women. But I definitely think resources are good, just with education and with an understanding of a framework.
Theo Mayer: Michael Sandstrom is a Social Science teacher from Chadron High School, from the Great Plains region of the United States in Nebraska. Follow the link in the podcast notes to learn more about the National History Day, Fallen American Heroes Program, and its teachers.