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March/April 2019

An Innovative High School English Class Project: Memorializing ‘Stories’ On Line

Countless high school English and history teachers around the nation have used The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s masterful 1990 book of linked Vietnam War short stories, in their classes. That’s the case with the English III Advanced Placement class for juniors at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas.

But the English AP teachers at Westlake High have taken teaching that book a step further. As a companion research project, they assign each student to do research on someone whose name is etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Then, in the spirit of O’Brien’s book, the students “retell the stories” of the men and women who died in the Vietnam War, as Carolyn Foote, the school’s librarian who helped create the website, put it.

The students, that is, create video presentations, complete with music, images, photographs, official documents, and the memories of families and friends whom they interview. Since 2007 those video memorials have been posted on the school’s website on a page called the Virtual Vietnam Memorial. More than 1,800 student video memorials have been posted on the page.

Students create their video memorializing projects “using a variety of software to tell the story of a soldier’s life and death,” Foote said. The students create a theme and use background music and “verbal storytelling.” Many of the background themes are movingly elegiac. That’s certainly the case with student Christie Byrne’s three-minute video honoring 173rd Airborne Sgt. Thomas Swinnea of Beeville, Texas, who died in Vietnam on January 30, 1968, during the Tet Offensive.

The video uses a slowed-down version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” as the background to the telling of Swinnea’s life story. Among other images, there’s a vintage photograph of the little town of Beeville, Swinnea’s high school yearbook picture, a portrait of his mother Bessie, several in-country photos, and a shot of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It ends, as all the memorials do, with a detailed bibliography.

The tribute to Spec.4 Thomas Severson from New Richmond, Wisconsin, a 101st Airborne Division medic who was killed in action on March 10, 1970, is titled “Soldier, Son, Brother.” It includes two in-country photos, a picture of Severson’s hometown, images of historical and cultural events of the 1950s when he grew up, and a quote from his sister Lori, along with the words, “He did not live to see his twentieth birthday.”

The Vietnam War memorializing videos make up “by far, the largest video project” the school has ever undertaken, Foote said. The AP teachers work with students “on the research, bibliographies, and their class presentations, among many other things.” When the website project began, Foote and AP teacher Joel Adkins “worked with all three teachers’ classes to demo software and share examples of how they could approach the project, and to talk to them about appropriateness of tone and music.”


©Michael KeatingThe videos have allowed the students to “drill deeper” into the lives of the people they memorialize, “especially when they didn’t have much information on their soldier available,” she said. The project also teaches the students “how to tell a story effectively in a multimedia environment, and how to be aware of their audience. Each video tells a story as the student interpreted it. It’s an innovative and instructive way of teaching the Vietnam War”—and more.

“Prior to the project, my only information about Vietnam came from movies and brief conversations with my grandfather who was in the Air Force at the time,” Westlake student Maia Flynn said in an interview. “Since then, I’ve tried to gain more information about the war so I could have a better understanding of what was happening and what people were feeling about it when my veteran was fighting. I’ve learned a bit from the book we’re reading, but I also read several articles with different opinions on the situation to gain a more holistic perspective.”

The project, she said, “is incredibly important because it makes kids my age aware of an event that had a huge impact on our country and the people in it. It’s also important in the way it humanizes the war. Instead of just learning about it from a straightforward textbook perspective, we’re able to learn from the perspective of one individual and truly see how much of an impact one person can make on so many lives.” 

The project has resonated with many people, including Vietnam War veterans. Rick Lewis is among them. Lewis served with Army Staff Sgt. Harold Brown, who was killed in Vietnam on July 11, 1969, and is the subject of a Westlake High student video memorial.

“I just wanted to personally let you know how much” the tribute to Harold Brown “has touched the lives of some old Vietnam vets,” Lewis wrote to AP English teacher Becky Stucky in 2008, soon after the website went live.

“I must confess that I loved my leader, my friend, my mentor, SSgt. Harold Milton Brown, aka ‘Sarge’ and ‘Brownie.’ He was truly my best friend in Vietnam. Your school is about to do something that none of us thought would ever happen. Our beloved leader will be known to many in a time that others have been forgotten. You truly are paying a tribute to one of the finest men that ever lived.”

Making It Personal

The genesis of this article was an email I received out of the blue from Maia Flynn, a student at Westlake High who was memorializing Joseph Tangarie, a 101st Airborne trooper who died in Vietnam on March 25, 1968. Joe and I went to the same high school. We were drafted into the Army on the same day and had Basic Training together in the summer of 1967.

Through her research, Maia Flynn found an article I had written in 2007 in which I mentioned Joe. She unearthed my email address, and asked if I would be willing to share “any memories, experiences, or photos you have of him” to “include in my memorial to make my tribute more personal.”

I emailed back immediately, and said I’d be pleased to help. I dug out the order inducting me and forty other guys, including Joe, into the Army on July 11, 1967, scanned it, and sent it to her in an email with my remembrances of him. 

—Marc Leepson







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