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A Dramatic 60 Years

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War Stories

Ontario teachers help bring history to life for their students

by Beatrice Schriever  

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War Stories

Ontario teachers bring history to life

by Beatrice Schriever


“Kids always see vets as old. They don't think they were ever 17.”

Jeremy Diamond has watched countless war veterans in front of classrooms. At first, students can't appreciate them. But the old men close the gap by telling their personal stories, and the kids respond with curiosity, and then with deep emotion and respect.

Diamond manages the Memory Project at the Dominion Institute, an organization dedicated to preserving memory and promoting history and shared citizenship. He co-ordinates hundreds of school visits by veterans every year.

“We train the vets before they go,” he says. “They used to talk to the kids. Now it's more of a dialogue. Mind you, you can't tell them what to do!”

The institute runs a speakers' bureau of 1,500 veterans. When a vet visits a school, he – most are men – gives a brief account of what he did in wartime, shows photos, a uniform and maybe medals, and then – the best part – answers questions.

Students' perceptions of conflict are based on TV drama. They inevitably ask whether their classroom guest killed anyone. The answers go beyond death tolls, bombs and troop movements to individual experiences: where I slept, what I ate, where I went to the bathroom, what my mom said when I told her, as a 17-year-old, that I was going off to war.

The reactions of students are poignant. Older students write letters and younger ones present them with drawings and paintings. Some ask for veterans again and again.

“It's very touching for the vets. It's cathartic when kids hold them back to hear more and ask more questions,” says Diamond.

When we were young

In the fall of 2003, two teachers at Unionville High School contacted the Dominion Institute. Their phone call led not only to speakers but to videos, a new cross-curricular course called Documenting History, two TVOntario movies, a field trip to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and a Governor General's Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History.

That September, things started modestly enough. Sheila Hetherington, head of Unionville's history department, and Jerry Berridge, a communications technology teacher, asked the Dominion Institute to suggest some veterans their Grade 11 students could interview for a Remembrance Day video.

Soon, the students and veterans were getting to know each other and the interviews were underway. Then the Dominion Institute called back. They were looking for a venue for the Minister of National Defence, John McCallum, to give a Remembrance Day speech.


Students document the stories of survivors at Unionville High School.

And so the 2003 Remembrance Day assembly at Unionville High became a big event. Berridge's and Hetherington's students showed their videos. The minister spoke. The veterans attended as special guests. School board officials looked on proudly. A bagpiper piped in all the dignitaries. And the whole school felt the significance of Remembrance Day more deeply.

“The kids could understand the importance of the minute of silence,” says Berridge.

Shortly thereafter, TVO heard about the Unionville students' videos and wanted to see them. Then they asked the students to create a broadcast-quality documentary, When We Were Young.

The pressure was on, but with the help of the Markham-Stouffville Legion, the students filmed on location at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton, at Canadian Forces Base Borden and on the HMCS Haida, the World War II destroyer on view at Ontario Place. They recorded stories of men and women from the air force, infantry, navy and women's army corps.

The students were utterly devoted to the project.

“They did all-nighters. They didn't want to disappoint their veteran, not the veteran but their veteran.”

“They did all-nighters. They'd stay till 11 and then take it home to work on it,” recalls Hetherington. “They didn't want to disappoint their veteran, not the veteran but their veteran.”

In the process, students learned not only about writing, camera work and editing but about copyright law, archival research, music rights and real-life broadcasting requirements.

After the TVO broadcast in November 2004, colleagues nominated Berridge and Hetherington for Governor General's Awards recognizing history teachers who have inspired and challenged students to explore Canada's past.

Hetherington and Berridge were the only Ontario teachers chosen that year and when they went to Rideau Hall in November 2005 they witnessed a historic event themselves.

“Just before the ceremony, the PM was coming for the election writ. They phoned and asked if we wanted to come earlier and watch,” says Hetherington. “Are you kidding? Of course! So I sat at the back with my video camera.”

“At the reception we talked about documentaries with Governor General Michaëlle Jean and her husband, a filmmaker.”

It was a rewarding day.

Our families have no stories …

After When We Were Young, “Sheila and I saw the impact of that project,” says Berridge. “So we thought, what else can we do?”

They asked their students for family histories and were told, “Our families have no stories. They're not famous.”

But they persisted and found that one girl's grandmother had been a messenger in Greece during World War II. Another's had evaded discovery by the Nazis in Poland by escaping through a hole to a basement where she hid under potatoes. One boy discovered that his Jewish grandfather and his Catholic grandmother had fled Holland together for Switzerland where they got married – a wonderful love story.


Talking with veterans at Canadian Forces Base Borden

The power of these family stories led Berridge and Hetherington to focus this year's documentary on the Holocaust. Through the Holocaust Centre of Toronto their students found survivors of concentration camps willing to share their stories for a film, Never Shall I Forget.

On an unforgettable trip to Washington, DC the students visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There, they reviewed photo archives and old footage to use in their documentary. Through the museum Hetherington wangled access to the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive located in Jerusalem.

“Basically, I asked for the moon and they gave it to us,” she says.

A digital archive

Over at the Dominion Institute, Jeremy Diamond is well aware of the potential of film, photography and audio archives.

The Memory Project has an extensive collection of oral histories and artifacts. Not long ago, they were housed in filing cabinets and musty attics. Now, they are also available via the web site. “This is a format that kids can understand,” he says.

The institute asks its speakers to send in their memorabilia by courier so it can be scanned or photographed. The resulting images are posted on the institute's web site alongside the owners' anecdotes. The project has been successful, but unwieldy.

Last year the Memory Project went one step further. As Diamond puts it, “Why don't we meet people where they live, where they're most comfortable?”

“They leave the course with skills they can use in real life, with pride and a portfolio.”

He took to the road. Starting in Toronto on VE Day and ending at the new War Museum in Ottawa on Remembrance Day, the Memory Project hosted events for veterans, archivists, historians and community members, giving them an opportunity to digitize their oral histories and personal memorabilia.

The road show yielded photographs, letters and medals, as well as unusual artifacts, rarely seen even in museums: standard-issue chopsticks in a little box from the Korean War and poker chips inscribed with swastikas, taken from the Nazis during World War II.

“What I found remarkable was that families of deceased vets from World War I came out. They said thank you – to us! – for giving them a way to share their things,” Diamond recalls. “The objects connect to stories and the stories were often very emotional.”

With funding from the Province of Ontario, the Memory Project was able to collect stories from 500 veterans at eight locations in six months.

Over the winter the show toured Canada, with stops in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal and Halifax.

Passion for teaching history

Jerry Berridge and Sheila Hetherington have a passion for our history, which they are able to share with their students.

“I love seeing the kids get excited,” says Hetherington. “They leave the course with skills they can use in real life, with pride and a portfolio.”

Berridge adds, “I love doing something positive, helping preserve history”

“It's not just the kids who are learning,” says Diamond. “Teachers learn so much from the vets that helps them to teach history better.”


Reviewing materials at the Toronto Holocaust Centre

The Memory Project has created striking educational materials to accompany the speakers' bureau and digital archives. Among them is a series of timelines showing various conflicts through the eyes of those who were there.

“This can go into the classroom tomorrow,” he says proudly. “The materials are in place. It's a turnkey operation.”

At the time of writing, Sheila Hetherington and Jerry Berridge expect Never Shall We Forget to air on TVO in early May, 2006. They are still looking at their options for the fall but they always seem to raise the bar a little higher every year.

Jeremy Diamond is manager of the Dominion Institute's Memory Project. He's organizing conferences in seven Canadian cities to seek out the new generation of Canadian Forces veterans, including peacekeepers.

Dear Dominion Institute

We had the privilege to have Gerald Murphy return to our school for a second year to share his life with our Grade 8 students. Mr. Murphy has had an incredible impact on our students and staff. The students wanted to shake his hand, not only to thank him for his contribution to the war effort, but also for taking an interest in their interests and for sharing his knowledge, experiences and anecdotes with dignity, passion and humour.

All of us carry Mr. Murphy, forever a part of the Duke community, within our hearts.

Rory Sullivan, Teacher/Librarian, Duke of Connaught Public School, Toronto

Mr. Myers brought a really human face to Remembrance Day. I think the kids really related to him – his decision to enlist, how afraid he was and how strange it was to suddenly find himself in Korea at such a young age. He maintained that war is a terrible, terrible experience for everyone involved. It was really easy to imagine him as that 20-year-old kid. That's what really moved me.

Leah McCartney, Westmount Charter School, Calgary

You were wrong about the veteran you sent us; he wasn't great, he was fantastic! Mr. Lindop had the students (and adults) so engaged that the hour flew by. He held their interest in the palm of his hand. The students were very impressed by this gentleman, especially at what he chose to do at such a young age.

I highly recommend the Memory Project to all schools to do at least once. We will be in touch again next year. Until then we will remember those who fought for the freedom we have today.

Victoria Bastide, Media Resource, St. Elizabeth School, Edmonton

Students from Unionville High reflect on the documenting history course

All I had ever seen in the past were videos and/or pictures in text books. But when you are sitting talking to a veteran and looking into his eyes and everything is so real to him, you gain understanding and appreciation on a whole different level. To us it doesn't seem as real because we see thousands of soldiers on television and their faces just become a blur. Afterwards, I realized why it was so important to be making these documentaries. If, even for a brief second, the other kids could experience what I had by listening to these stories, their appreciation for these veterans would be heightened so much more! — Georgette

My perspective on Remembrance Day really changed one cold Monday morning when I sat down to interview a man by the name of Victor Bulger. When I first met Mr. Bulger he began telling me stories of being a soldier in the war. When he joined the war he was 17. I am 17. I go to school, do my homework and then go to work at the swimming pool. On weekends, I spend time with my friends and have fun. When Mr. Bulger was 17 he was trained to use a gun, to fight for his country and to fight the enemy. He volunteered to do so. I thought to myself, would I volunteer to go to war, to fight for my country? My answer was no. Mr. Bulger was a brave man – braver than I will ever be. He helped to make our country what it is today. — Amanda


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