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.
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