SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine a world where airplanes are not widespread and there aren’t phones in everyone’s hip pockets. It’s an easy task for older folk, but for a middle school student, it’s a huge leap – one they often have difficulty making. Helping students connect with a bygone world is one of the biggest challenges for teachers striving to help them understand important events like World War I in a historical context.
Two local Catholic school teachers have been accepted into a program that gives them a hand up in that endeavor. Azure Smith, a world geography teacher at St. John the Baptist Middle School, and Monica Howa-Johnson, a teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Parish School, are receiving an in-depth education about World War I. The two have received scholarships to the online National History Day® program “Legacies of World War I,” which is sponsored by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission.
As part of the program, Smith and Monica Howa-Johnson are participating in four live webinars with World War I historians. “Legacies of World War I” sets aside traditional ways of teaching the subject in favor of relating the realities of war in a way with which the students can identify. It’s an approach that makes sense to Howa-Johnson.
“This way offers a broader connection to what students know,” she said. “Many middle school students don’t know the differences between the two [world] wars and often confuse facts about the two.”
The teachers also share resources with other participants and are developing a classroom activity to use with their students next spring.
“It is super-valuable for me to see other teachers’ ideas and how they would teach a particular topic,” said Smith, a third-year teacher.
“It’s so wonderful not to have to recreate the wheel, to be able to turn to what my colleagues are doing across the country and to pull ideas from them,” Howa-Johnson said.
Her interest in the program grew out of her desire to have all her students participate in the regional National History Day competition this year, the St. Vincent de Paul School teacher said.
She has been impressed with the suggestions for teachers on how to share what was known as “the war to end all wars” with their students.
“This will totally change how I teach about WWI this year,” she said.
Smith hopes her students will take away from her classes that issues such as suffrage and minority rights came to the forefront during the war.
Already Smith said she has learned from the first webinar that the causes of WWI are more complex than are often taught. Smith said that teaching her students about WWI gives them context.
“WWI is where we start to see current geo-political boundaries take shape,” she said.
Wendy Atzet, state coordinator for National History Day in Utah, said quite a few teachers across the state applied for the program this year. Howa-Johnson and Smith were selected based on their previous interest in National History Day, she said.
“What I really like about these kind of programming opportunities is that the national organization is able through the U.S. World War I Centennial to plug into experts at a national level,” Atzet said. “It offers really great teacher development. World War I is overshadowed by WWII in popular thinking. This is just a tremendous opportunity for these teachers to teach the subject in richer, more complex ways.”