history

Short But Sweet: In Flanders Fields

Inscription of the complete poem in a bronze “book” at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. (image and caption text from Wikipedia)

In Flanders Fields

BY JOHN MCCRAE

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I’ve always been of the mind that there are two types of war poetry: the realistic and the patriotic. In fact, I wrote about that a few years ago when I compared Wilfred Owen to Edgar Guest and used both in my English classes around the same time we were reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Guest’s poetry is the type that shares the same sentiment if you were to log onto Facebook today–I wouldn’t be surprised if someone posted “The Things That Make a Soldier Great” with a graphic of a bald eagle and an American Flag.

At first glance, “In Flanders Fields,” which is unarguably one of the most famous poems of the First World War, seems like it would be that type of poem. It has a pretty simple rhyme scheme and was written by a Canadian soldier, as opposed to something more complex that came from the pen of one of the Great Masters or at least someone from the University of Iowa.

But then you hit that line, “We are the Dead.”

Every time I read that poem, I have to pause after that line. McCrae is obviously not subtle here and obviously doesn’t want to be subtle and normally I don’t usually go for poetry that is so direct. But here, it’s absolutely necessary. The dead are asking us a favor, to finish their work, to carry on what they started so that the task can be ended. Whether or not that’s to vanquish the foe or bring peace is, I guess a matter of interpretation.

I bring this up because, obviously, it’s Veterans Day. But as we honor our Veterans, it’s necessary to explore the human condition that leads to all of the death that comes with war. Yes, it’s sacrifice for a cause, but as we have seen in so many wars and so many works of literature, it can be both noble and ignoble, both worthy and useless. And to perfectly encapsulate that in three stanzas is both poignant and amazing.

Reading 9/11

DC_WP

The front page of The Washington Post from September 12, 2001. Image courtesy of The Newseum.

Around this time of year, there are a good numbers of articles and blog posts about how to teach about September 11, 2001, especially to a generation of students that doesn’t know what happened or may know what happened but doesn’t have much of a memory of it. It’s an issue that makes total sense–eleven years passing may not seem like an incredibly long time to someone like me who was 24 on that day and is 35 now, but for the high school sophomores I teach, eleven years ago was preschool.

Being the father of a kid in kindergarten, I know that when you’re four or five years old, you don’t fully comprehend what’s going on in the world, so I can’t expect to have my students share deep reflections on where they were that day. I have always felt that it’s necessary to teach about that event, and teach it in a way that is more than simple lip-service patriotism or a special moment of silence or whatever your average school will do on an otherwise ordinary September 11.

As an English teacher, doing so isn’t necessarily in my domain; after all, this is probably the jurisdiction of a history teacher. But the journalism teacher that’s still in me has always felt the need to really take a look at the day’s events because it was such a huge media event, and one that really tested the mettle of those chosen to report the news in the way that a presidential election (which is more or less the same story every four years) doesn’t.

Virginia’s changing of our SOLs actually provided me with a chance to do so these past couple of years, as the Dept. of Ed. has added a standard that addresses “media literacy.” My colleagues seemed hesitant when we first talked about it, but I had the opposite reaction–in fact, my eyes probably lit up when I thought about how I could crack open my old journalism lesson plan binder and see what I could repurpose for English. I created a small unit for my advanced English class that I called “Reading 9/11.”

A condensed version of a unit that I once did with my journalism I students a number of years ago, I set out not to study the history of the event, but the way its story was told. My goal in crafting the unit has been to get my students to consider where information comes from, and the quality of those sources. Added to “What happened?” and “What do you remember?” were questions like, “What makes a good source?, “How is this being reported?,” “What is the value in reading different types of sources to look at the same thing?,” and “How have these events been interpreted?” This, hopefully will lead to maybe not a full understanding of the events of the day (which requires a significant amount of research), but at least an understanding and appreciation of the scope of 9/11.

I took five days of class for work and discussion, although I assigned all of the reading ahead of time (I tend to do this in advanced English so that my students have the opportunity to plan and manage their time), and tried my best to take a back seat to their own “discovery” of the events (with some guidance on my part–I am still allowed to do that, right?). Here’s how it broke down:

CA_SFE

The front page of the San Francisco Examiner from September 12, 2001. Image courtesy of The Newseum.

Day 1:  Here’s where I did the most “teaching.” I reviewed basic “media studies” terms–objective, subjective, bias, perspective, primary source, secondary source, etc.–and we discussed where we get our news, how trustworthy news sources are, and also talked a little about what personal memories we had of that day. It was interesting to hear how many students remember that something happened, there were crying parents, and in most cases they weren’t sure what had happened. It was also satisfying to know that the terms took all of five minutes to go over because they all knew them already and all I had to do was embellish a little.

Day 2 (first half): Showed several newspaper covers from September 12, 2001 and we talked about how subjective they were versus how objective the headlines are versus how subjective they are. The most objective, we decided was the one from The Washington Post, which was a straightforward declarative headline. The most subjective? The San Francisco Examiner, whose headline read “Bastards!”

Source for Day 2 (first half)</em> — The Newseum

Day 2 (second half)-Day 3 (first half): Students used iPads to read articles from the September 12, 2001 edition of the New York Times as well as the October 2001 issue of The Spectator, the student newspaper of Stuyvesant High School. I allowed for basically a full day in the class for reading these because I felt it would be fun to do something with the school’s iPad cart (and the class had been a little jealous when my other classes were using it last week for some research), and it was fun to read them on the iPads.

Sources for Day 2(second half) and Day 3 (first half) — The New York Times and The Spectator

Day 3 (second half): A discussion of the two newspapers read in class. This didn’t go particularly well and I think that it’s because it was the only teacher-led discussion we had. I had some questions I wanted to ask, but for the most part those questions were met with silence and I wound up providing commentary more than discussion. The reason, I told my class, I had picked the two papers was pretty specific.

With the New York Times, I wanted them to see the news as it was reported the day after and how much we knew/did not know about the events (when I taught journalism, btw, I showed the actual NBC footage … however, a former colleague who also teaches journalism still has my tape) and how sometimes even in a 24-hour news cycle, we don’t know everything right away. Plus, they could take a moment to evaluate how objective the reporters were and could try to put themselves in the shoes of someone buying the NYT on the day after–something made especially easy since it’s an interactive graphic of the actual front page.

Stuyvesant High School’s student newspaper, on the other hand, offered a completely different perspective than the one they were used to. The New York Times reported on the national scope of the events; The Spectator, on the other hand, reported on a very local aspect, and from a student body perspective. In addition to articles about how the administration handled the tragedy to the general confusion the day caused, there are several testimonies from students about their personal experiences from the day. It’s valuable because it gives my students a chance to see what people their own age were going through and hopefully brings it down to their level (in a manner of speaking).

Day 4: A discussion of Sarah Bunting’s essay “For Thou Art With Us” and the G-Train podcast about the events that occurred in Gander, Newfoundland after air traffic was grounded and 38 planes were rerouted there. Bunting’s essay is an amazing account of her being in Lower Manhattan on 9/11; the podcast is a discussion with Jim Defede, the journalist who wrote The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander. For this discussion, I turned things over to the class by way of the fishbowl discussion. We started with “For Thou Art With Us,” and as with any time I’ve ever tried the fishbowl, it started pretty slow at first, but picked up steam, especially as they began talking about the elements of Bunting’s essay.

My class had really enjoyed the essay and spent time talking about the way it was written and how that conveyed Bunting’s sense of shock, horror, and trying to comprehend what was happening right in front of her eyes. There is a good amount of cursing in the essay and even some instances where she cracks some jokes (albeit bad ones) while the events are unfolding around her, but they really got how that’s how people naturally react to such events; moreover, some of my students took to breaking down her narrative from a psychological standpoint (some are taking a psych class this year) and that was a really fresh way to look at it. What I had to offer was more of an analysis of her style and structure, although I did tell them that I have never read that piece without feeling completely wiped at the end. Quite a few agreed.

Funny enough, I had done this last year as a teacher-directed discussion and it didn’t work well. At the end of the year, my class suggested I do more fishbowls, and they also suggested I provide printed copies of “For Thou Art With Us” at the discussion day so they could flip through them and point things out. This year, I made 30 copies and handed them out at the beginning of class … it worked incredibly well. H/T to last year’s advanced group.

The Gander podcast was meant to be a counterweight to “For Thou Art With Us.” If you’re unfamiliar with the events of 9/11 in Gander, basically what happened was that 38 planes were forced to land at the airport there and a town of 10,000 people grew by about 7,000 almost overnight. Defede discusses public health issues, crisis management, and spins a great tale of the amazing hospitality that the people of Gander and the surrounding towns provided in those first few days after 9/11 for those stranded passengers. It’s an incredibly hopeful story that is both humorous and heartwarming and while the class didn’t get as in-depth with the discussion as they did with “For Thou Art With Us,” it was fun to just talk about moments we all liked in the story.

Sources for Day 4“For Thou Art With Us”

G-Train Podcasts (“The Day The World Came to Town” is Episode 14)

*Note: Today, 9/11/12, was Day 4. Tomorrow is Day 5.

Day 5: A look at how a current U.S. history textbook addresses 9/11 and students will be asked to map out either how they would rewrite the history textbook entry or simply map out how they would teach 9/11 and what sources they would use instead of a history text and why. I’ll probably have them do it in small groups and maybe count it for a small grade.

Sources for Day 5 — A photocopied page from a U.S. History textbook I borrowed from the social studies department. I am not sure whether or not this will be useful to anyone reading this blog or if any of this is proper, innovative teaching–or even good teaching for that matter. And I know I’m kind of patting myself on the back here, but I have been really proud of the way things have come together in the last few days (despite some hiccups) and wanted to share. I’ll leave with a song I might have us listen to and discuss because it’s always interesting to see artistic interpretations of events … and that is “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen:

Conversations and Conspiracy Theories

Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald in an infamous photo taken before he supposedly assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

“Is that non-fiction?” I looked up from my book–Stephen King’s 11/22/63–to see a man sitting on the other side of the waiting room at Merchant’s Tire. It was 7:30 on Saturday morning and I had been up since 6:00 because I’d wanted to make sure I was early enough to be the first in line to get my wife’s car inspected (it’s a sure sign of getting older–you camp out for car inspections and miss the boat on concert tickets).

I glanced at the cover and half-wearily replied, “No, it’s a novel. It’s about a guy who goes back in time to try and stop the Kennedy assassination. So far it’s pretty good.”

He nodded and turned his attention back to the local news on the waiting room’s television. After a few moments of silence, he muttered, “They couldn’t have prevented that anyway.”

“Yeah,” I replied, half-heartedly, trying to get back to reading.

“It was a huge conspiracy.”

“I’ve heard a lot of people say that. I guess when you have a conspiracy like that, you need to keep it secret, so it couldn’t have been prevented.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what I think …” he began. I closed my book. I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person, even though I tend not to believe most of them. I think I just like a good story. He began to talk about the Bay of Pigs, which I’d known about since the sixth grade when I did a report on JFK for a biography project, but then went into elaborate detail on something called “Operation Northwoods,”  a rejected plan in which the CIA would commit acts of terrorism in the United States and blame Fidel Castro.

And I think at that point, he definitely had me, because he didn’t go into anything about second shooters and grassy knolls, but was tracing all of the reasons why higher-ups in the U.S. Government–the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the mafia, the FBI, the CIA, Lyndon Johnson–either plotted to kill Kennedy or knew about the plot. I told him I would go look up Operation Northwoods when I got home and then let him continue on his path, which ultimately led to how he prevented World War III and how he himself was leaking information to the Russians.

Supposedly, he set up a “messaging service” of sorts where his brother Bobby would give certain information to a contact at the Russian embassy and that would then get relayed to Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev. This was, by the way, the reason Bobby was killed in 1968, too. The powers that be wanted to make sure that another Kennedy didn’t make it to the White House, and the gentleman I was talking to said that he knew a guy working in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel and that Sirhan Sirhan’s gun only had eight bullets in it and eleven were fired.

It was the first time I had heard of a theory concerning RFK’s assassination, but then the only thing I ever knew about it was from the footage I had seen on documentaries. But his story does match what is noted on Wikipedia as the “second gunman theory,” so while I’m not sure how right he is, I have to say that I like how I was able to find some information on a reputable site because my curiosity about whatever he was saying was piqued and I would have been disappointed if the only place I could find such theories were on a random Angelfire site created in 1996.

As the man finished up his RFK assassination theory, the mechanic came in to tell me that the car passed inspection and I could go ahead and pay. I stood up and said goodbye, shaking the guy’s hand and telling him that I hoped he had a good weekend. On the ride home, I really could do nothing but smile because that made my morning. I mean, usually when I go to do something like get my car inspected on a Saturday morning, I wind up covering a decent amount of a book or knock out a podcast or two and my conversations rarely go beyond, “I wasn’t watching it, you can go ahead and change the channel.” But here I got a bit of a history lesson, as “out there” as it seemed at times.

What’s funny is that when I was younger, I probably would have listened intently to this guy but in my head, I’d be thinking about how this guy was a loon and then would be laughing my ass off about it after I’d left, because I had a typical teenage lack of respect for my elders (and even that was kind of an act in the same way I listened to Metallica because I felt that’s what teenagers did). But now I see a real value in the stories that everyone–whether they are notable people or not–has to tell.

Earlier this year, I did a project with my advanced English class called “Legends of Your Family” (to give credit where credit is due, my wife came up with the title). We read a smattering of short stories and essays that had to deal with the relationships between parents and children, the mysteries that older generations leave behind, and even a Washington Post piece about teens adopted from other countries searching for their birth parents that just happened to run while we were reading all of this. We also watched the Tim Burton film Big Fish (also my wife’s idea), which centers around a writer and the tall tales his “doddering old fool” of a father tells. Their assignment was to talk to a relative and uncover some of the stories their families have.

While quite a few students got frustrated and met with several dead ends either with ideas or people to talk to (but still wound up with a decent genealogical research project), several others had some great stuff. I heard about haunted houses, murdered relatives, and someone who spent most of her childhood sailing on a boat throughout the Caribbean. I don’t teach history and aside from political history courses I took in college (courtesy of the late, great Hans Maier, political science professor at Loyola College in Maryland), I’ve never truly been a “student” of history. But what I love about our age is how even people who simply love stories about particular periods of history (I have a fascination with 2oth Century America, which is probably why I DVR so many American Experience episodes) have an enormous amount of information available online. And what I hope is that such a wealth of information will lead myself and my students to further research, asking people who were there to share their stories. Even if they are conspiracy theories.