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Lest we forget: Great War history comes alive in story maps

Remembrance Day is a time to commemorate all those who have fallen while in service to their country and to reflect and learn about the past. Discover how students at St. Michaels University School (SMUS) in Victoria, British Columbia learned about World War I through researching school archives, exploring primary resources and documenting the experiences of some of the school’s alumni in story maps.

In honour of Remembrance Day, this blog post highlights a school project about the Great War completed by a group of grade nine students from St Michaels University School (SMUS) in Victoria, British Columbia using story maps. Our guest blogger is Kirsten Davel, the Assistant Director of Academics and a grade nine English Language Learning Social Studies teacher, at SMUS. She’s very excited to share the Great War Alumnus Project with you.

The Goal of The Great War Alumnus Project

The Great War Alumnus Project began four years ago at SMUS. Over the years, it has evolved, as the redesigned British Columbia curriculum has opened up myriad opportunities for project-based learning. This flexibility led our inter-disciplinary English Language Learning Social Studies and English team to co-design with students an authentic approach to learning about World War I. In collaboration with the school’s Wilson Archives, each student selected to research an alumnus who had served in World War I. The goal of the Great War Alumnus Project was to search primary and secondary documents in the school archives and beyond, add to archival records and deepen our collective understanding about Canada’s contribution to the Great War through the lens of the school’s alumni. Students collated their research and created story maps to share the experiences of those who volunteered to serve in the “War to End All Wars.” The researchers then shared their story maps with their peers through oral presentations. Choosing story maps to tell the alumni experiences allowed students to visualize the life and times of Canadian soldiers that were vivid, image rich and grounded in the geography and history of the places they connected through World War I.

Story map of a SMUS alumnus, Lieutenant George Edward Ambery, was created by grade nine student Caroline Luo.

Cross-Curricular Learning

Concurrent to this project, students were also engaged in literary circles whereby they read and discussed the significance of their learning through novels focused on the Canadian World War I experience. In turn, they examined the events from the perspectives of aerial combat, trench warfare and the home front. In addition, the readings sparked further curiosity about the Great War, which culminated in personalized research on a topic of interest demonstrated through an infographic shared with peers. Students reflected on how an imbalance of power contributes to conflict on multiple levels and how we might approach conflict resolution before tensions escalate.

A Learning Opportunity

The idea for the project was spawned by the freedom granted by the redesigned curriculum in concert with our pursuit of authentic inquiry-based learning providing students voice and choice. Deeper learning through pursuing the research routinely conducted by historians, historical novelists and archivists ensued, and students reported having insight into the value of learning about the past to influence present and future decision-making. At the same time, we wanted to leverage the power of our school archives for learning about our school in historical context. Students engaged with the archivists, resulting in one student choosing to volunteer regularly to update and catalogue materials some of which came from the research our class was conducting. As a result, in 2017, one of the school’s archivists invited our students to participate in the commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge hosted by the Bay Street Armoury . During the open house, which included a tour of the museum, one of our students discovered some vital information about the alumnus he was researching. His excitement at this discovery was tangible, especially when he presented the alumnus story to his peers.

Connecting to History Through Primary Sources

The Great War Alumnus project was greatly enhanced by a colleague and a friend of the school who shared stories around personal artifacts inherited from relatives who had served in the conflict. Students lovingly handled letters, cap badges, shell casings, photographs, clothing and other mementoes, which fed their curiosity and resulted in a barrage of questions.

Connecting with history - Laurie Pederson, a friend of the school, shared personal artifacts from her grandfather’s and father’s Great War collection.

A Student’s Experience

The value of telling Lieutenant George Edward Ambery’s story through a story map was summed up by SMUS student Caroline Luo. “I knew nothing about World War I. While I was reading the novel, I had no idea of where Canadians were fighting and why. Creating the story map on my alumnus helped me understand where the events occurred and the significance of fighting a war in a foreign land far from home. As I researched and mapped my alum’s life, I considered how each place affected him. He [Ambery] volunteered for an adventure, but the reality of his death and millions of others is a tragedy. However, I was glad to learn that his sacrifice is remembered at the Vimy Memorial in France.”

Caroline Luo, a grade nine ELL student who learned a lot about her alumnus through the Great War Alumnus project and enjoyed the project.

Documenting Student Knowledge in Story Maps

Story maps provide our 21st century learners with authentic opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of current and past events in a unique way that grounds the story geographically. Geographic information system (GIS) adds an innovative option for students who are given voice and choice concerning how they wish to demonstrate their learning. For students, educators and parents, story maps provide evidence that students are active producers of knowledge and not merely consumers of information.

Thank you to Kirsten for sharing the Great War Alumnus Project with us. It is a great example of how students can engage in their learning and connect with the past through primary sources such as books, images, letters and other artifacts. Through this project, history became relevant to students, and their literacy and technical skills are developed in the creation of story maps.

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About the Author

Angela Alexander is a K-12 Education Specialist in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. She has over 15 years of experience working with educators across Canada. Angela focuses on producing geographic information system (GIS) and curriculum-specific resources, and conducting and creating custom workshops for educators. She manages the GIS Ambassador Program and is the Technical Chair for the annual Skills Ontario GIS competition. Angela also writes monthly posts for the Esri Canada Education and Research blog, highlighting K-12 educators and partners, new ArcGIS resources and GIS-related events.

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