Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Battle at Dawn

 At first light, they waited.  Fear gripped at their guts.  Soldiers of Germany and England., who were separated by worlds of ideology and politics but only a few dozen yards of “no-man’s land.”

Green grocers, solicitors, university students, and lawyers; they were all soldiers now, privates and officers.  Their now-fantasy-like lives of childhood games, studies, wives or lovers fading to distant painful memories called up from letters from home and shared in stories.

The dew steamed on the moon-like landscape, foreshadowing the clouds of smoke and mustard gas that would soon fill the air.  A whistle blew, soldiers surged “over-the-top.”  Suddenly, one is hit…

Water drips from a fourteen-year-old girl’s hair, her sweatshirt soaked.  Laughter splits the stillness of the morning as the Hillsdale High School “Battle at Dawn” had recorded its first casualty.

For weeks at this San Francisco Bay Area school, 9th grade history and ELA teachers had coordinated their units around WWI.  English classes read All Quiet on the Western Front.  They learned about setting, character development, perspective, and anecdote.  They created an “auto-biography” of a solider-persona that they would enact at the Battle at Dawn.  In character, they wrote stories about their lives: their hobbies, former jobs, loves, and reasons for joining the military.  The facts and dates that usually dominate traditional history classes were absorbed in a day, the bulk of their time spent researching the “story” of the Battle of the Marne (from which the Battle at Dawn is inspired).    They did the research on their personas, using physical and virtual resources to find images and stories to inform their writing.  They created propaganda posters to recruit their fellow students, colleagues of their persona’s life. 

The unit culminated with “armies” of British and German “soldiers” gathering at the school before sun-up to reenact the battle fun and safely.

When the Skyline High School team visited Hillsdale, at lunch we talked to a group of students.  We asked them to talk about memorable projects they had engaged in over their high school careers.  A senior, and two sophomores immediately mentioned, “Battle at Dawn,” their eyes lighting u at the memory.  The freshmen mentioned how much she was looking forward to this project.