Social Studies

High-Tech Tools Help StudentsPut Veterans in Limelight

By Rhea R. Borja — September 10, 2003 6 min read
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High-wattage floodlights showcased the petite woman perched before a digital videocamera and two high school students here. In a soft, gentle voice, 80- year old Pennsylvania native Ena Belden spoke of a war-torn world thousands of miles across the ocean and of a time almost 60 years past. In 1944, she was a young U.S. Army nurse in Paris as the Allied forces battled Germany, Japan, and Italy in World War II.

As the retired nurse spoke, 17-year-old interviewer Caroline Pearsall sat still, concentrating on the veteran’s answers. Next to her, 17-year-old classmate Randy Stark checked the videocamera and listened through headphones. The two are among 16 high school seniors who used digital technologies to interview and record Pennsylvania World War II veterans during a project for the Pennsylvania Governor’s School of Information Technology. The school, a six-week summer program, took place at Pennsylvania State University.

The student oral-history project, which will soon link to a student-created Web site, is part of the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project at the American Folklife Center. Established under legislation signed into law in 2000, the national project has spurred volunteers to document the oral biographies of veterans and civilians in World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the Persian Gulf War.

According to the Library of Congress, about 1,500 veterans die a day—a statistic that underscores the urgency of the effort.

Bringing History to Life

At last count, more than 8,000 veterans had submitted oral histories, as well as 26,000 photographs, letters, and other memorabilia. A sample of them is now on view at the Library of Congress Web site at www.loc.gov/folklife/vets.

“This is the only national [oral-history] project, and one that’s approached as an educational one,” said Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, the director of the Library of Congress project. “Students learn the history of America at war ... through individuals that were really there. It brings history to life for them.”

Students saw Mrs. Belden’s face light up, for instance, when she talked about V-E Day on May 8, 1945, the day Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allied forces. Elated people mobbed the Paris metro and the streets, particularly along the Champs Elysees. It took her a long time to get to the hospital that day, the veteran recalled.

“People were dancing in the streets,” Mrs. Belden told the students during her videotaped interview. “We opened a bottle of champagne.”

Harold E. Williams, 86, of Huntingdon, Pa., spoke of meeting the actor James Stewart during his World War II service. But the students didn’t know who Mr. Stewart was.

A bespectacled man with an easygoing manner, Mr. Williams was stationed at the same Air Force base in England as the film star, who didn’t like to talk about his acting career. At the time, Mr. Williams was an Army control tower operator. Mr. Stewart was a fighter pilot.

“He was a nice fella,” Mr. Williams said with a laugh while being taped. “But he was strictly business.”

High-Tech Interviewing

Technology is an effective hook to get students interested in subjects such as history and broadcast production, said Donna Weimer, the head of the oral-history project for the governor’s Pennsylvania technology school and a professor of communication at Juniata College, a liberal arts school in nearby Huntingdon.

“I’m always looking for ways to use technology to enhance relationships,” she said.

Mr. Stark, the 17-year old student who filmed Mrs. Belden, said his interest in making home movies connected him to the oral-history project. That, in turn, helped him better grasp U.S. history, his weakest subject.

“Before, I didn’t know much about World War II,” he said. “You just read about it in history books. It was very boring. These veterans make it real.”

Ms. Weimer stressed that while technology is important, it’s secondary to the academic knowledge the students learn.

“They forget that the technology supports the content,” she said. “They want to learn all the latest software. And they do need to know that. But if you don’t have good content, it doesn’t matter.”

So the students hit the books. Or rather, they logged on to the Internet and researched the armed forces and what happened in the Pacific and European theaters during World War II. They also studied two-inch-thick handouts about the war.

Operating digital technology and video-editing software is the easy part for the students, said Ms. Weimer. The hard part is learning how to use it to get the best results. Figuring out not just what questions to ask, but how to ask them, for example, is harder than just knowing your way around a fancy piece of technology, she said.

Ms. Pearsall learned that when interviewing Mrs. Belden. The high school senior from Radnor, Pa., was hesitant as she sat across from the former Army nurse, and her questions seemed disjointed. Mrs. Belden, blinking from the bright lights, never relaxed as a result.

“It was kind of difficult because I didn’t know how to make her more comfortable,” said Ms. Pearsall afterward. “Interviewing is more difficult than filmmaking. It was more challenging to keep the conversation going.”

Mrs. Belden, while happy that she took part in the project, wished she had gotten more direction from the students.

“It was hard for me to follow exactly where they wanted me to go,” she said. “If I had an inkling about that, I would have enjoyed it more.”

Other challenges were organizing the documentaries; incorporating video of the veterans’ memorabilia, known as “B-roll,” into the documentaries; and shooting the veterans in the best light, said Maria Cabrera-Baukus, a senior lecturer in telecommunications at Penn State and a teacher for the summer program.

The students also learned about different ways to transition from one picture to another, such as the “dissolve.” That’s when the picture slowly morphs into a different picture, such as when a shot of a veteran changes to old photographs of him in uniform.

More importantly, the students found out what transition techniques are best to use, said Ms. Cabrera-Baukus. The “fade,” for example, in which one picture slowly turns to black, is often used for starting and ending a piece. But it can suggest other things as well.

“It’s also used [to symbolize] life or death,” Ms. Cabrera-Baukus said. “So you wouldn’t use that for an interview.”

Student Publishers

The Pennsylvania students are far from the only school group using technology for the Library of Congress’ oral-history project. More than 200 school and youth groups across the country have recorded veterans using audio or video technologies.

Students in the 4,900-student D.C. Everest school system in Weston, Wis., have taken the project several steps further. Students in grades 8-11 have also designed a Web site (www.dce.k12.wi.us/ srhigh/socialstudies/histday) and have written books based on their interviews of World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam veterans.

Using QuarkXPress, Adobe Photoshop, digital cameras and scanners, the students created the books, downloaded the information onto disks, and handed them off to a local printing company, said Paul Aleckson, the K-12 social studies coordinator for the district and the mastermind of the project. With the help of local and federal grants, they’ve printed four books, which are used to supplement the district’s social studies curriculum. Another five books will also be produced—notably, a second book on World War II veterans.

Meanwhile, back at the Pennsylvania governor’s school program, students wrapped up their interviews, put away their high-tech equipment, and looked forward to getting out into the brilliant summer sun. Their work was done.

Ms. Pearsall, for one, felt fortunate to work on the oral-history project.

“It’s important for people my age to hear these veterans’ stories,” she said. “These people may not be around much longer.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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