A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

An Expedition to World War II

Christa Umphrey

Ronan High School


During the 2001-2002 school year, forty freshmen in Christa Umphrey’s English classes studied twentieth century wars and interviewed local veterans as part of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Before the interviews began, students read extensively, to develop background knowledge. In small groups they chose nonfiction or historical fiction books about the war to read together. The entire class read novels based on war. Christa put a large world map on the wall and had learners find out where at least one of their grandparents were during World War II and to put a marker on that spot.

After September 11, the class interviewed community members about their reactions. This allowed learners to become familiar with interviewing procedures, the equipment used, and the process of turning transcripts into narratives. They created web pages based on these interviews.

When it was time to interview veterans, many learners were reluctant, especially those who had limited interaction with those two generations older, so the first interviews were done at school. The local VFW sent four veterans who spoke to the entire class then gave interviews to small groups. Working through the VFW and the grandparents of some students, a willing veteran was found for every student. The interviews were conducted at school because freshmen are too young to drive. Some of the veterans were as nervous as the students. Though the pairings between students and veterans were for the most part random, each student seemed sure he or she had been luckier than everyone else.

The least enjoyable part of the process of turning the interviews into finished intellectual products was transcribing the audio tapes. Getting from great stories full of details to texts on paper was a lot of work, but having the information in text form made the next steps much easier.

Students selected important ideas or themes and interesting stories from the transcripts and wrote narratives, which they took back to the veterans to be checked for accuracy. Most veterans made few corrections. Some added further stories that hadn’t been included in the first interviews.

Researchers requested photographs of their subjects during the war.

They revised their stories repeatedly, created web pages and then worked on PowerPoint presentations to highlight excerpts from the narratives to present to the public at a veterans appreciation celebration at the school. “I learned how revisions and letting others read your work can help you out a lot,” noted R. J. Olsen. As the presentations were readied, several practice and critique sessions were held. Students reminded each other to speak up, to slow down, to speak more clearly. “By practicing our presentations, we found out we needed to be louder and to explain some things more,” said Aaron Skogen. “Setting them up took some time because we wanted them to be perfect.”

After the presentations, many students were impressed with what they had accomplished. “I didn’t think I was capable of making something turn out that well,” said Courtney Zimmerer. “I learned what makes a good interview, a lot of information about World War II, and how to give a good presentation.”

Most of the veterans attended the afternoon presentation in spite of illnesses and other inconveniences. “The highlight of this project for me was when we gave our veteran a copy of everything we had done,” said Zak Brandon. “It doesn’t matter what grade I get because I know I worked to make this the best documentation of his military service that I could. There were tears in his eyes when he said, ‘thank you.’”

To print a final report for the year-end binder, click here.
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© 2002 Montana Heritage Project
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