Students assume a critical role as community historians

Veterans History Project

by Elaina Loveland, Editor
The Rural School and Community Trust

A few days after displaying their research in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress, Bigfork students formally presented their research for archiving in the Library. Ryan Kuhn is at the computer while Jossie Pekus reads excerpts from biographies she and her classmates completed about veterans living in their area.

The Montana Heritage Project is an official partner with the Veterans History Project at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress.

The Veterans History Project collects and preserves oral histories and documentary materials about America’s veterans from World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars, as well as from civilians who served on the home front. Since its inception, the Veterans History Project has attracted nearly 700 national and local partners representing the military community, veterans, civic groups, cultural and historic organizations, and educational institutions.

Students involved with the Veterans History Project have been interviewing veterans in their local communities as part of their high school English classes. Although the basis for the project in each school was to interview veterans and gather information about the past, the culmination of the project in each place was different. In all the communities, students shared their work with their interviewees and other community members.

"It’s important for students not only to learn from the community, but also to give back," said Peter Bartis, project manager of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress.

At Simms High School, each student in Dorothea Susag’s English class interviewed a veteran for an hour. In preparation for the interviews with veterans, the class divided into research teams with community mentors and researched the century’s wars. After the one-on-one interviews, students had the interview transcribed, got the transcription approved by the veteran, and wrote an oral history of the veteran’s experience. At the same time, the students studied the different wars in history class, making the Veterans History Project at Simms High School truly cross-curricular. The class then published their writings in the high school literary magazine.

At Bigfork High School, juniors interviewed veterans from World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars. Students created a multimedia presentation with photographs and oral histories and invited the entire community to honor the veterans. They even took their presentation a step further. They brought veterans’ history to life onstage when they modeled dress uniforms and fatigues from World War II to the present..

Bigfork English teacher Mary Sullivan believes that the Montana Heritage Project’s approach to place-based education is as beneficial to teachers as it is for students. "As a teacher I love it because it provides a different approach to learning and students get excited about it," she said.

Mary also finds that her students like to learn from researching primary sources. "Their sense of history really develops," she said. "They become aware that the past is complicated....that history is made up of individuals’ experiences."

One of Mary’s students, her daughter Maureen, said that students like to dig into their past by interviewing local community members and visiting archives. "It was nice to learn more about our townspeople who experienced war firsthand," she said. "It’s important for us to recognize what they did for our country."

At Ronan High School, Christa Umphrey’s freshman English class took the research to a new level when they published We Remember: Fifteen Oral Histories of Montana World War Two Veterans, a book based on their interviews. Forty students contributed oral histories to the book, which took three months to complete.

Christa had the idea for publishing the book because she was "looking for some way for kids to have a professional and high-quality product that would serve the community." She also wanted them to strive toward a higher learning goal: "I wanted to show them what they are capable of."

Students had a positive response to interviewing veterans for the book. "They took ownership of it [their learning]," said Christa. "They wanted to get it right because they had a personal connection with the veterans. It also really helped with their writing…they were more willing to do revisions to make it better."

During the last academic year, students in Christa’s junior English class continued the legacy of preserving local veterans’ stories. They interviewed thirty-two Vietnam veterans and plan to publish another book, Vietnam: A Nation and Community Divided, this fall.

Elaina Loveland is the editor of Rural Roots. This article was excerpted from a longer piece that first appeared in Rural Roots, a publication of The Rural School and Community Trust. The piece can be found on-line at


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