Teaching about the Great War — World War I

Published On: May 11th, 2017·By ·

Teaching about World War I

World War IThis year marks the 100th Anniversary of the United States entry into World War I. This was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” Sadly, it was not. The world is a complex place. It was in 1917 when the U.S. entered the war and, after watching the news for 10 minutes, many of us leave with more questions than answers.

In America’s classrooms, World War I is often overshadowed by World War II. After all, WWII was fought by the greatest generation. A generation that endured a depression and then fought a global war against the Axis powers that eventually made for a better tomorrow. When you look at what is going on in the world today there are many connections to WWI that simply cannot be overlooked. There are many legacies that are with us today that have come from the Great War such as its developments in medicine, the changing role of warfare, and international relations to name a few. All of which are important to explore in a Social Studies classroom.

Too many of Social Studies textbooks focus too much on the good vs. evil when dealing with wars. As the father of an 8 year-old I can see why textbooks do this. My son often asks who the “good guy” is in any conflict, and I guess human behavior wants us to identify who is fighting to help people so this way we can cheer for the side whose intentions are to make the world a better place to live in. War unfortunately is never that easy. War is a form of human behavior. It is important for students to understand the ideas that lead to this behavior.

Traditional teaching of WWI focuses on the following causes: militarism, alliances, nationalism, imperialism, and the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. There are other ideas that lead to war such as manifest destiny, interests, global protection, love of political power, and the glory of war. There is another approach that can be used to teach students that connection on a different level. The personal side to the war.

The aim of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri is to teach visitors about the World War I experience on a personal level. The museum’s curator Doran Cart’s attention to detail is evident in the exhibits throughout the museum. On the second floor of the museum, a visitor will encounter uniforms and personal keepsakes by those who fought in the war. A veteran of any war can appreciate this exhibit especially when they take a look at the spent shells that were decorated by locals and sold to soldiers as souvenirs.

As a veteran, I cannot help but chuckle at this. Whether it was WWI or the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, men and women who go into combat are concerned about many things but the two that remain the same, no matter what war, are surviving the experience and taking home a souvenir to brag about your endeavors. It is those similarities that  show no matter what war you are learning about, or as an educator teaching abou,t there will be many similarities that will remain a constant in war.

Even after 100 years since the Great War, there are still stories from the war that are still being researched, debated, and more importantly are just being told. As a teaching fellow for the World War I Museum, my focus was on the Healthcare practitioners which included the experiences of Doctors, Nurses, Chaplains, Ambulance Drivers, and Stretcher Bearers (today’s Combat Medic or Hospital Corpsman). Many of the sacrifices that they have made when caring for casualties were not written about in great detail until Dr. Emily Mayhew covered their work in her book Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty 1914-1918. Her detailed research covers the challenges that each of the practitioners encountered on the front line and she takes the time to provide the smallest of details that anyone who has ever provided aid to casualties in a combat environment can relate to.

World War IThe World War I Museum also recognizes the role of healthcare providers during the war in an exhibit they have on the first floor of the museum. As a former Navy Hospital Corpsman, I can appreciate the detail that is put into the details of this exhibit. The exhibit shows visitors the medical equipment that was used to treat casualties along with a Ford Ambulance that transported patients to the next level of care. The continued level of treatment can also be seen in this exhibit with a prosthetic arm that was donated to the museum. If you can not make the visit to Kansas City the database is a great resource for WWI enthusiasts and educators.

There are many events today that compare to events that took place during WWI. In 2017, terrorism has helped to shape how countries and its people think and behave. When Gavrilo Princip, a member of a terrorist group called the Black Hand, assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie the intention was to force Austria-Hungary into a violent reaction.

In many ways the 9/11 attack and terrorist acts that have followed have been an echo of that provocation. There are many different approaches that an educator can take when studying WWI by either connecting the events of today to the events that took place during 1914-1918 or by utilizing the vast resources that the National World War I Museum has. President John F Kennedy once said “the human record is littered with lessons unlearned.” The big takeaway from World War I is that peace does not come from people who hope for it and want it. Peace comes from strong-minded individuals who take action to maintain it.


About the Author

John Heeg earned his undergraduate degree in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in Secondary Education in 2000 from Dowling College, Oakdale, NY and holds permanent certification in Social Studies for grades 7-12. He then went on to receive his Masters Degree in 2006 from Touro College in Special Education and a Post-Graduate certificate in School Administration from Stony Brook University in 2009. John began his teaching career at the Lenox Academy in Canarsie, Brooklyn where he taught English Language Arts and Social Studies for grades 6-8. In 2003, he began teaching 8th grade Social Studies in the Deer Park School District where he has held the role of a Mentor for first-year teachers, Mentor Coordinator, and a Teacher Leader for the 8th grade Social Studies Department.

Heeg’s work has appeared on The Vietnam War site, Simplek12, and Medicine in the First World War for the University of Kansas Medical Center, and he has contributed a chapter to Scandal on the South Side: The 1919 Chicago White Sox. During the 2016-17 school year John served as a teaching fellow for the National World War I Museum. Outside of the classroom, Heeg served as a U.S. Naval Hospital Corpsman from 2001-09 with all unit assignments with the Marine Corp. In 2011, he enlisted in the United States Air National Guard where he continues to serve as a Aviation Resource Manager. Heeg resides in Mattituck, NY with his wife Gia and son Colin.

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