We often say that “hands on history” is one of the best ways for students to learn, and Colin Baker embodies that term, bringing history to life for his students constantly. Colin teaches AP European History and World History II at Blacksburg High School, in Blacksburg, Virginia. He also has multiple responsibilities outside the classroom, as he is the department chair, and is on the leadership team for the AP European History exam reading. Beginning in July, Colin will serve on the National Development Committee and as a College Board Advisor for AP European History.
Colin is originally from Scotland, where he attended Edinburgh University. He has been teaching for 18 years, and living in the United States for 20 years. Colin has had the opportunity to travel throughout North America, Europe, and the Philippines, which has contributed to his love of teaching European and World History. Colin especially enjoys teaching modern military history, and was fortunate enough to be involved in two primary source research projects recently that focused on his favorite topic.
Last year, Colin was a member of a team of teachers working on a grant funded by the American Battlefield Monument Commission, which maintains American cemeteries overseas. This project focused on World War One and the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Colin conducted research for several months prior to a weeklong field experience at the cemetery and the surrounding area in France. Of this experience, Colin said “My focus initially was on the American military cemetery at the Meuse-Argonne: how it was established after the war ended; the role of Chaplains and initial burials; the Gold Star mother’s pilgrimages after the war. However I also was fascinated by the whole battlefield and the experience of American soldiers and the broader role of Chaplains in the front line. I was therefore fortunate to extend my research into the lives of two American’s at the Meuse-Argonne. Becoming in a way deeply involved in both these men’s lives was the most powerful experience in France for me.”
During the fieldwork experience, Colin was able to concentrate on the movements of an American sergeant. He said “briefly I was able to trace the exact battlefield location and sequence of events of an American sergeant who became involved in a pistol duel with a German major, videoing a re-enactment at the scene and including primary source maps and documents in the iBook. Aside from archive research in the US, the highlight for me here was a four hour hike through remote fields aided by an elderly French farmer all-to-eager to help (and put up with my massacring of his language), ending with him inviting us back to his house for lunch. Equally powerful was the connection I made with the family of an American Chaplain who served and died at the Meuse-Argonne. His story spreads from his birth in Ireland to New York, South Dakota, France and today back to his nephew in Tasmania. In many ways his life, death and world-wide impact reflect many of the characteristics of World War One for the United States.”
Since the experience at the Meuse-Argonne, the team of teachers has written and published an iBook with resources and materials, which is available for free on iTunes (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/bringing-great-war-home-volume/id977675965?mt=11) or as downloads from the ABMC website (http://www.abmc.gov/learning-resources). Colin has incorporated materials from the iBook into his classes, and has the opportunity to present the iBook at Virginia Tech, the VCSS conference, and the NCSS conference. He was also able to collaborate with colleagues at Virginia Tech and Blacksburg High School to put together a “History in 3D” presentation, which shared with students some of the key parts of the iBook and the technologies used in France to bring the battlefields and trenches to life.
The second project Colin was involved in was in partnership with the Virginia Geographic Alliance and was entitled “When We Were British.” This project focused on primary source research at the National Archives in Kew, London (https://php.radford.edu/~vga/). Colin said “my focus was on the Caribbean theater of the American Revolutionary War and, using maps and documents, show just how central that was to the American Revolution – especially in the years 1781-82. Fascinating military history documents, focused around the critical role of British Admiral George Rodney and the tiny Dutch island of St. Eustatius, emerged as gems in London. Being able to delve into primary sources to discern a pattern and illuminate a story is such a joy. Often the serendipitous connection of events, people and places interacting make the study of geography and history so rewarding. It’s my hope as I present at the VCSS and AHA in Atlanta this fall/winter that I can pass on that sense of wonderment, as well as illuminate an area of the American Revolution perhaps neglected. If nothing else though I’ll treasure for myself the joy at finding Admiral Rodney’s small personal notebook complete with a captured intelligence report handwritten by George Washington to Congress, and the comment by my ten year old son “that’s pretty cool Dad.”
Colin’s students will continue to benefit from his experiences as he brings resources and information into his classroom from the ABMC and VGA and demonstrates what it means to bring history to life.
While we often think of our Virginia Council for the Social Studies members as veteran teachers, we have several for this month's spotlight that are pre-service teachers at Virginia Commonwealth University. Laura Lay, past president of VCSS, had the pleasure of supervising these rising stars as part of VCU's innovative "Richmond Residency Program" (RTR). These teachers will soon join the ranks of other VCSS members (Connor Dolson and Sean Conard) who went through the RTR program and are now teaching in the City of Richmond schools.
This year, both Gregory Johnson and Maggie Settle attended the VCSSE last October and began their "RTR" program at the start of the school year. Unlike traditional student teaching, residents complete a year-long internship complete with graduate courses. While it makes for a hectic year, the residents receive a fellowship that covers both housing and tuition...and a guarantee to work for the City of Richmond upon successful graduation. The full year also allows residents to truly connect with the school and students. In Gregory Johnson's case, John Marshall High School provided a chance to work closely with his cooperating teacher, Milondra Jackson. VCSS members Nakita Lee and Christopher Shores were teaching next door, which further allowed collaboration and camaraderie. Maggie Settle, a former Peace Corps member, taught at Thomas Jefferson High School under the amazing direction of Joy Beatty (another VCSS member and presenter!) While student teaching is traditionally a time of intense growth and challenges, these residents also expressed a sense of true satisfaction and efficacy in the classroom. We are so proud to have both student teachers and cooperating teachers as productive members of VCSS!
by Lindsey Clouser, World History II teacher and VCSS member
Thanks to the VCSS classroom mini-grant, Virginia Beach City Public Schools high school social studies students joined an international movement by folding 1,000 origami paper cranes for peace. Our social studies instructional specialist, Lisa Gibson, presented these student created origami cranes to Hiroshima, Japan as a symbol of peace and friendship.
During this project, students throughout the school division learned more about the Hiroshima & Nagasaki atomic bombs and their after effects. Through exploring the personal story of one survivor of the bombing, Sadako Sasaki, students discussed the concepts of symbolism, the significance of memorials, and experienced empathy through art.
Diagnosed with atomic-bomb disease (radiation-induced leukemia) at age twelve, Sadako learned of a Japanese legend that states anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes would experience peace and be granted a wish. In her memory and to honor all children affected by tragedy globally, people around the world fold a thousand paper cranes as a symbol of peace and good intentions. Inspired by Sadako’s story, VBCPS teachers and students were eager to participate in this peace building activity.
After End-of-Course SOL testing, social studies students created over a thousand paper cranes. Students gained a deeper understanding regarding the effects, both culturally and politically, of the atomic bombs and how societies engage in collective memory & memorialization. Learners connected the personal with the global, art with history, and made meaning of the past. In addition, they were able to discuss the significance of symbols and learn about various memorials in the world. Students formed and articulated their opinions about common elements of tragedy, connecting historical events of the WWII atomic bombings to more modern events, such as the Cold War and September 11, 2001.
The VCSS mini grant funded all material costs for this project. Fifteen social studies teachers were provided with a block of one thousand sheets of origami paper. One hundred finished cranes from each of the eleven high schools were collected and strung together to present to Sadako’s brother, Masahiro Sasaki, in Japan on July 2, 2015.
Serving as the lead teacher of the 1000 Paper Cranes for Peace project, I was able to see how my peers around the division incorporated Sadako’s story in diverse social studies classrooms: Va. & U.S. History, AP U.S. History, World History 2, Psychology, Sociology, AP World History, IB 20th Century History, AP Government, and AP European History.
At Tallwood High School, AP World History teacher Kate LaRoue made connections between the United States 9/11 tragedy and the dropping of the atomic bombs. “One or two students already knew of Sadako’s story, but for most it was a new thing. The seniors really got into folding the origami; some even purchased their own origami paper to contribute more. They liked the witness testimonies on the 9/11 website too because it showed the commonalities of the two events together. Students realize how countries respond to tragedy can serve to unify, give people hope, and work towards prevention of future harm. ”
Kempsville High School teacher Gabe Wetmore noted, “My Virginia and United States History students really enjoyed this project. Several of them took origami paper home to make additional cranes to contribute to the final strand. They enthusiastically wanted to do ‘homework for a cause’ .”
Melissa Porter, an A.P. European History teacher at Landstown High School, said her students were excited to have a piece of themselves (what they made) incorporated into an international peace offering. “Although it was challenging, it was pretty cool to learn how to make paper cranes and understand its connection to history,” stated one of Ms. Porter’s students. One of my students agreed with that statement, “This is fun! I never realized how much a paper crane symbolizes!”
As a first-year teacher, 1000 Paper Cranes for Peace allowed me to bond with learners on a deeper level and promote social-emotional growth in students. This symbolic project brought history alive for students as well as promoting compassion for something that happened far away and a long time ago. I encourage all teachers to apply for a VCSS mini-grant to help implement a low-cost, high impact lesson in your own classroom!
Photo credit: Gabe Wetmore
To apply for a mini-grant award, please visit: http://www.vcss.org/downloads.html
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