Meet the history-makers

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Becky Hewlitt describes a scheme that brings students and veterans together to explore events and experiences during the Second World War.

The 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which has filled the newspapers and television schedules with images of VEday, has also provided history teachers with a unique opportunity to celebrate the achievement of the British and Commonwealth peoples in resisting the advance of fascism.

Many schools will already have been involved in some way with the Imperial War Museum's (IWM) programme of commemorative events, Their Past, Your Future. With support from the Big Lottery Fund it has made it easy for schools to get in touch with local people across the country who remember the Second World War, and for veterans who wish to share their story to contact local schools.

"Intergenerational partnerships are helping young people to think about issues such as remembrance, conflict, freedom, democracy, reconciliation and commemoration," says Jenny Ruder of the IWM. "They can be a very rewarding experience for all concerned."

Not only does the partnership scheme provide the contact, it also provides teachers with an excellent guide to organising and developing a visit.

First, it advises you on the sort of project your school can embark on - perhaps you wish the veteran to give a talk to the whole class, to be interviewed by the children, or to make recordings of his or her memories.

IWM also gives examples of investigative and creative projects you could set up. For example, young people and veterans could be encouraged to compare their own experiences on themes such as family, holidays and school. Similarities in experiences and attitudes could be discovered, as well as the expected contrasts between 1940s wartime and 21st-century life.

It also suggests planning and participating in commemorative events, such as a performance or an exhibition of work created in partnership with veterans.

Once you have decided on the focus of your project, the IWM provides a step-by-step guide to staging your interviews. It suggests the issues to bear in mind when planning a school visit, such as the best times of day to meet, child protection issues and guidance for looking after valuable items and memorabilia that may be brought into school. It offers a list of questions for the children to ask and an overview of ways these projects can cover cross-curricular objectives. For example, speaking with veterans is a superb way to encourage literacy (interviewing, listening and comprehension) and citizenship (by questioning and striving to understand different points of view and moral and ethical choices).

Colm Murphy, head of history at St John's Catholic School in Gravesend, Kent, has found his school's participation in the veterans scheme invaluable. Sixty pupils went to Normandy last year with IWM organisers and the South-east branch of the Normandy Veterans Association. This was deeply moving for all involved and strengthened links between pupils and veterans.

This led the school to begin an ambitious programme of celebratory activities before VE day. In preparation, students had three or four lessons about the events of VE day and wrote down questions they would like to ask. The veterans then came into lessons and were interviewed by the children, who wrote up their stories. In conjunction with the ICT department they produced high-quality 200-page illustrated A5 books.

In May the school held a day of celebration. The school day was given over to assemblies about VE day, and a re-enactment, and the local religious schools came together for a service of thanksgiving. John Spoore, who was the Queen Mother's piper, also played.

The veterans who had taken part in the project came into school for a presentation of the students' work, after which there was a buffet and a pianist from the sixth-form performed favourites such as "In the Mood" and "We'll Meet Again". More than 60 other veterans came along.

"It's so important to have the generations interacting with one another," says Colm Murphy. "The children were able to hear the veterans' experiences at first hand and that's almost as important as studying the historical content itself. There is nothing like hearing someone who has actually been there to bring it home to the children how much we owe them."

* For information about the partnerships scheme Tel: Jenny Ruder, 020 7820 6709 Email:

Becky Hewlitt teaches history at Perryfields High School, West Midlands

Meeting vetrans

* Find a reliable contact through the Imperial War Museum, the Royal British Legion or a local veterans association. St John's contact is a veteran who works regularly with them on various projects.

* Work with local regiments who are keen to preserve their regimental history. In Gravesend and the Medway towns there is a strong naval tradition, as well as links with the Royal Engineers.

* Planning lessons for before and after the event will consolidate learning.

* Ask other departments to help. There is great scope for cross-curricular projects.

* Use the check lists provided on the IWM website to help plan your veteran's visit.


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