Mention the word “history” and many students and adults cringe with thoughts of memorizing dates for a test or visions of old and boring details told in a monologue fashion.
That doesn’t have to be the case, however, and teachers worth their salt and education credentials go the extra mile to make sure students grasp the value of studying the past to shape the future.
Students in Jay McNeely’s fifth grade class at Nevils Elementary School recently completed an assignment that showed they really got it. As part of the World War II unit, McNeely taught students the importance of the Battle of Iwo Jima, which took place Feb. 19-March 26, 1945.
“For State Standards, students need to know as the main concept that it was crucial for Americans to take the island to use the airfields there to refuel,” McNeely said. “I wanted them to understand the sacrifice the troops made, both Japanese and American.”
After teaching the factual details of that time in history, McNeely read journal entries from Japanese soldiers and sailors, written to family members during the 34 days that the battle took place.
McNeely’s assignment had the students write their own letters home, from either a Japanese or American perspective. Most chose to write from an American perspective, but several chose the opposing side.
One student, Megan Newham, wrote:
We just arrived in Iwo Jima a week ago. Many people have already died. When I look around, I see horrifying things. Things that no one wants to see. There are people laying all around me with awful wounds and some are slowly dying. Some are sadly, already, dead. People have missing limbs.
“I am very tired. I have barely gotten any sleep since we arrived here. We have been searching day and night for the people that are supposed to be on this island, but we see nothing. We know that Japan has tunnels that run under the ground, but we can’t find a single one.
“I don’t know when or if I’ll see you again. Tell everyone I love them and you should probably tell them I said goodbye. I hope you never forget me. I will always love you!
Avery Girardeau wrote:
“Dear Mom, Dad and Andrew,
“I am on my way to Iwo Jima. If you are reading this, then it will probably be the last time you hear from me. I am concerned for the ground troops because we can’t see the Japanese soldiers. My plane has lots of bombs and torpedoes, so I can’t fly very high. Our ground troops are invading and heavy tanks are unloading off big ships.
“We have to take Iwo Jima because if we don’t the bombs won’t be able to make it to Japan. I hate sitting here watching people suffer! If only peace was the first priority. This world is a horrible place. My only hope is that the Lord in heaven will allow me to return home to you.
“I will always love you, no matter what happens to me. Be safe and always remember me.
Your loving daughter (or sister), Avery.”
Ten-year-old Girardeau, who said that her Uncle Mike used to serve in the Navy, added, “I was able to imagine Iwo Jima really well due to the descriptive lessons. The actual letters from Japanese soldiers we read in class helped me understand the struggles of American soldiers. Most of the letters were Japanese, but they helped me see it from a different perspective.”
Eleven-year-old Newham agreed that the journal entries helped her the most when completing the assignment and said she thought the troops were most likely very nervous before the battle began.