Vietnam Veterans of America
Studying War: A Texas Model for Involving Vietnam Veterans
Austin, Texas, Chapter 915, along with its sister organization, the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans, is involved with large-scale projects that recognize the sacrifices of Texas’ Vietnam veterans. In 2005 the Texas Legislature authorized the placement of the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument (TCVVM) on the Texas Capitol grounds (See July/August 2014 coverage), as well as the Texas Vietnam Heroes Exhibit in 2013—a traveling, award-winning, interactive exhibit of dog tags representing the 3,417 Texans who died or are listed as Missing in Action during the Vietnam War.
As a condition of receiving funds, however, the George and Cynthia Mitchell Foundation stipulated that a curriculum be developed to teach students about the Vietnam era. Planning for the curriculum began in October 2014 as a collaboration between TCVVM Education Component Committee members Don Dorsey, former VVA Government Affairs Committee Chair John Miterko, Kerry Orr, and filmmaker Cheryl Fries (See March/April 2017 for a feature on When I Have Your Wounded: The Dustoff Legacy).
Westlake High School teachers Catherine Cluck, Christy Robins, and Rebecka Stucky were recruited to create the curriculum. The unit was designed as a two-to-three week course to be used in English Language Arts or Social Studies classrooms to deepen student understanding of the many issues surrounding the Vietnam War.
The curriculum introduces students to the 1960s political and cultural landscape. Students learn about the causes leading to American involvement in the Vietnam War, and they are introduced to Vietnam both as a country and as a military opponent. Students may also learn about a range of topics to broaden their understanding of the war, such as the draft, women in service, prisoners of war, missing in action, Agent Orange, and war materiel. Each unit is structured so that it is independent of the others. For this reason, a teacher with limited resources or time can tailor the program to specific classroom and student needs.
Each curriculum unit is broken down into sections that move students through deepening levels of learning. It begins by providing students basic knowledge to create context for understanding the war:
From there, students deepen their study through learning tasks that require the use of readings, digital resources, and videos:
Then there are ten assignment options:
Finally, if the teacher chooses, students are offered the possibility of completing a project that synthesizes their learning and culminates as a final assessment for their project: Each student writes a veteran’s biography to be shared on an online remembrance site.
Having a curriculum unit ready to launch is one thing, but finding willing educators to do the work is another. A project such as this, introduced by an outside entity, requiring educators to take risks and to commit time and energy to its success, as well as to make room for an unanticipated project? Not an easy sell.
In January of 2016, VVA Chapter 915’s Kerry Orr and John Miterko contacted me. I coach teachers of the Lake Travis Independent School District to move away from traditional learning models into more progressive ones.
This was an opportunity to help students learn about the 1960s and the Vietnam War (which receives nothing more than a few paragraphs in a typical history textbook), and to increase student awareness about the costs of war, the price paid by veterans, and students’ responsibility to honor and support the servicemen and women who put their lives on the line.
Because I am familiar with many campuses, administrators, and teachers, I was able to carefully select a teacher willing to go the extra mile who had the administrative support for something experimental. I selected Hudson Bend Middle School—a progressive middle school with a progressive principal—and Peter Hunt, an eighth-grade Social Studies teacher. Hunt agreed.
Thorough planning began. Decisions had to be made: What from the curriculum would he decide to implement in the Vietnam study? How would the project be laid out? How much time would be needed? We would be under a time crunch at the end of the school year: How could we ensure that we would get through the project successfully? After a thorough review of his options, Hunt selected pieces of the unit that he felt would best help his students gain a firm grasp of the times.
In addition, we needed to find and coordinate with veterans to participate in interviews. After looking at schedules and considering the number of students (about eighty), how to assign students to veterans, ideal interview time-lengths, and physical space for conducting interviews, Hunt and I decided that the interviews should be spread over four days. We would stagger the students between the days so that each class period would be limited to no more than ten interviews.
At the same time, Orr and Miterko began recruiting veterans willing to be interviewed by students. Emails were sent out with information about the interview process, and veterans were asked to sign up for specific dates and times. As veterans responded, I built a schedule.
In May 2017 the project was ready for roll out. In the six days leading up to the interview process, students were introduced to the Vietnam War. They were given a list of objectives to achieve from the TCVVM unit. While some students conducted interviews of veterans, others worked independently, researching and deepening their understanding about Vietnam and the experiences of veterans in general.
When the first of four interview days arrived, students had a firm, basic understanding of the Vietnam War, its causes, and its lessons. In addition, they had studied interview techniques, and had carefully selected, written, and vetted questions that would facilitate the interview.
Before the interviews started, Orr and Miterko spoke to the veterans about the purpose of the interviews, answered their questions, and set boundaries about appropriate topics and responses. Veterans were asked to avoid graphic details of violence, even if elicited by the students. The interview process needed to be kept PG-rated: The last thing we needed was for students to go home and report to parents horrifying details. Fortunately, the interviews went smoothly.
All interviews were one-on-one, and each lasted about thirty minutes. What was anticipated happened: After students interviewed their veterans and began writing the biographies, they began to have additional questions that could have been clarified in a second interview. In addition, many students said they would have liked to have spent more time with their assigned veteran—especially time unencumbered by first-time-interview jitters.
Students, although initially intimidated, were clearly enthralled and moved by these men’s stories. Each interview lasted long enough for students to gain the deeper understanding that comes with hearing first-hand accounts of those who served and sacrificed during the war. Many veterans brought memorabilia, such as pictures and artifacts, which became conversation pieces and helped them to tell their stories. A map of Vietnam was laid out on a table, and many veterans and students stood over the map as the veteran pointed to locations and talked about where he had been stationed and where his tour had taken him.
As students came to understand the reality—of the war they were studying, of the men sitting in front of them, of the experiences shared—an undercurrent of gratitude, humility, and admiration began to emerge.
In the practical world, grades must be issued and assessments must be made. The final task was to write a biographical account of the veteran’s story. This was a great opportunity for English Language Arts and Social Studies to partner by having students write history. Students received instruction and feedback, then they revised their written pieces.
If the veterans approve of the written pieces, the biographies will be uploaded to a veteran remembrance site. This process provides an opportunity for writing instruction and practice, as well as an authentic audience for students. And, in the end, it captures veterans’ stories for people to read online.
The planning of this pilot was a labor of love, and the rewards were innumerable. The project was an amazing success, in part due to thorough planning. Our students’ learning, deepened and enriched by the stories of veterans, helped them to better understand the realities of the Vietnam War and its era.
“The pieces of content I chose worked well as they set the tone of the war,” Hunt said. “I wanted the students to get a true feeling of what the soldiers went through and how many were treated after the war. The main resource for this was the interview, and it was extremely effective. Not only did the students master processing the curriculum, they also got a true and real-life example of what soldiers went through.”
His only regret? “There just wasn’t enough time.”
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