Year-long WWI Research Project by Reston, VA High School Group
"Students often discover WWI to be far more interesting than they expected it to be."
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
A major reason why the Centennial Commission does what it does is to ensure the stories, and the lessons, of World War I are given to our coming generations. So, last month, we were thrilled to hear from Mr. Hugh Gardner, and Ms. Lachlan Dodge, who work with the IdeaVisions Academy in Reston, Virginia. There, they helped their high school level students to create and carry out a World War I research project that took place over this entire school year. We wanted to hear more, and sent them a number of questions about the project -- and they asked students Daniel Heintz and Nolan Powers to be the spokespersons for the effort.
Tell us about your class project. What did you study, and what did you create? What is the URL for your web site?
Following a year-long study of WW1, we selected from the research papers that we wrote for class and were proud of and created a web site to educate others about WW1.
The URL for the site is: http://idvhonorshistory.weebly.com. The website is organized by Technologies, People, Analyses and Reviews (incl. books, movies, games and museums). We're still working on getting permission to use some of the images that were sourced from books.
How did you organize yourselves? How did your research process work?
Nolan (student):The process would start by defining a topic that had to do with WWI. I would then find books in either the book annex at our school or buying books from Amazon or other online book providers. I would also look online for websites that were reputable and helpful. The next step would be to read all of the sources and take notes to fully understand the topic. The next step before writing would be to create an outline and have it approved by our teacher, Mr. Gardner.
For one paper I happened to be in Kansas City and so I wrote a paper on the National World War One Memorial Museum.
Daniel (student): I would start by choosing a topic, and then I would ask my teacher if he knew any good, reliable books on the topic. Then, I would look at books that were either available online or that we owned, and see if they would work as a good source. Usually, by now I would have plenty of sources, but if I didn't, then I would do a Google search about the topic, including looking at museum websites.
Once, I interviewed Dr. Patrick R. Jennings, Programs and Education specialist for the National Museum of the United States Army about the exhibit on World War One. I also talked to docents at the National Museum of the United States Navy and the National Museum of the United States Marine Corps.
Nolan (student): Our history teacher was one of the most helpful people during this process recommending books, topics and places to get more information. He would also help with the writing process, including beginning to edit phases to deciding how the backbone of the paper would look like. He would also provide feedback on our papers that would help us in future papers. For example, he recommended that I go to the National Air and Space Museum to write my paper on synchronized machine gun development.
Daniel (student): The people who helped most were probably my mom and our history teacher. They recommended books and helped workshop themes/topics for my papers. My mom helped with the editing process and showed me tips to help make the paper cleaner. Both of them helped me break-up my paper into different sections with different ideas when I was making the outlines.
How did the students react?
Nolan (student): Most of the topics I wrote about had been covered in class and the reason I chose it was because I wanted to learn more about it. However, when I started to dig deeper, a lot of the details were interesting in terms of how well technology worked or did not work, or how dedicated some people were to winning the war. Overall most of the research did not reveal any extremely surprising details although there were some people and ideas that I did not expect to find fighting in WWI.
Daniel (student): I tended to research topics that I already knew something about, although the biggest shock likely came from my research on strategic bombing during World War One, and found out that it was even worse off than tactical bombing and that potentially the most important strategic air action was the British attack against some of the German Zeppelins in their bases. Learning about Oswald Boelcke, the German fighter ace, was also interesting, especially since he was Manfred von Richthofen's teacher and created the first treatise on aerial combat. Boelcke was killed in a mid-air collision with another German airman, however Richthofen himself estimates that had Boelcke lived to the end of the war, he would have gathered over a hundred kills.
What surprised them?
Nolan (student): The vast area that WWI was fought over from Africa, Asia, and Europe there was fighting all around the world. That was really surprising as I had always heard of the fighting in Europe on the Western and Eastern front. What I hadn't heard about was the fighting in other continents, especially in Africa such as with the Mimi and the TouTou fighting in Lake Tanganyika in Africa. I was most taken aback by the incredible amount of fighting and death at Verdun and the Somme and the incredible persistence to win over the Germans.
Daniel (student): The fighting in Africa was the most surprising, specifically the Battle for Lake Tanganyika. The conflict was between the British and Germans, with the British being led by Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, who was an incredibly strange character. To start, he prepared for the climate by having his wife make him a khaki "kilt" which was technically just a skirt.
What did you all learn?
Nolan (student): This question is very broad but I will attempt to answer it in a reasonable amount of text by completing a basic overview of WWI. Before WWI, Europe had a balance of power where there were the great powers like England, Germany and France and the smaller powers like Belgium. One of the main reasons that Germany started WWI was for the contested Alsace-Lorraine region which had gone back and forth between French and German hands since Napoleon. The often over-dramatized assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was more the tipping point of WWI than the actual starting point. German, British and French troops were all told that they would be home by Christmas of 1914 when in reality it would be a long four years. Some of the battles during WWI were terrible with the entire French Army rotating through Verdun or the Somme.
Daniel (student): I learned a lot, but the most surprising piece of information was the events leading to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and how poorly it was executed. There were multiple flaws, the most glaring of which were the usage of unreliable, outdated grenades and the failed suicide attempt by one of the assassins who attempted to kill himself with a diluted cyanide pill, which merely made him nauseous, and then jumped into a river. The river wasn't flowing and he simply sank in the mud and was taken into custody.
What recommendations would you make for other students, or other teachers, who want to mount a similar project?
Mr. Hugh Gardner (History Teacher): My experience in 25 years of teaching History is that students often discover WWI to be far more interesting than they expected it to be. Many have pronounced it to be their new favorite period to study. I believe the key to this is spending the time and effort to truly teach the subject as The World War it actually was, while giving as much nuance as possible to Trench Warfare on The Western Front.
Nolan (student): I would recommend to just have fun in this class. It's not every day you get to handle authentic WWI bolt action rifles and bayonets. Even though there are some very lengthy papers to write, try and focus on the class at hand as it will be the most enjoyable way to spend a three-hour lecture. Do the homework, write hard and have fun.
Daniel (student): Don't be too scared of the big papers that carry grades, just try to pick a topic you enjoy and write about it. If you're bold you can pick something out of your comfort zone. Our teacher collects artifacts and reproduction artifacts from the time period he teaches, including helmets, vests, weapons, gas masks, and lets us handle them with care.