Originally Published: 30 May 2016
It can be easy to find yourself in the academic doldrums in May. In schools, May is the month of standardized testing, awards ceremonies, and field trips. Your classes are frequently interrupted, canceled or sparsely attended due to these events. Even when you do have a full classroom, your students have often grown weary of your schtick. You have already used many of the most exciting tricks in your teaching toolbox. Students can smell and taste the summer air; their mouths are watering at the prospect of the freedom this change in weather signifies. They are seldom fully present. They are counting down the days.
I found myself in this situation earlier this month, being greeted with zombie stares in response to what I thought were extremely engaging lessons. Around this time of year, with Memorial Day right around the corner, I like to spend my time with my students exploring pieces of literature relating to war and military service. The list of literature that falls into this category is as amazing as it is long, and it reminds us of the suffering and sacrifice that humans have caused and given to one another in our time walking upon this earth.
We were exploring an excerpt from Phil Klay’s Redeployment (Note: This piece is generally not safe for the classroom, and I had to edit it heavily for inappropriate language), and while some students were fascinated, others were…well…less so. If this piece was not holding their attention, I knew I was in trouble. I had to do something, anything to make these stories of military service real to them.
So on a beautiful May day, I took my students on a walking field trip (Oh, the irony!) to Eastport’s Hillside Cemetery to play a game. Prior to class, to build the suspense, I told my students to come to class prepared to go outside, but I did not tell them where we were going. On the day of our walk, I asked my students to bring their iPads with them and off we went.
Hillside Cemetery perches above Passamaquoddy Bay a half of a mile from Shead High School. Once we arrived at the cemetery gate, I gathered my students into a group and introduced and explained the day’s lesson. First, I reminded my students to make the most of their time because one day we would all be in a place like this or somewhere similar, and then I sent them off with a challenge. “You have 30 minutes to photograph the gravestones of as many veterans as possible. Go!”
Because Eastporters have a long history of military service and other forms of service to others, this cemetery is the final resting place of veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Before I took this trip with my students, I knew about the giving nature of the people of Eastport and their history of military service, but I was shocked by the actual number of veterans buried in this graveyard.
While my students explored the cemetery searching for veterans’ gravestones, I visited with Marc Young, Hillside Cemetery’s Supervisor. Marc was kind enough to take me into the cemetery office and share his knowledge and maps of veterans’ locations with me. He also pointed me to some prominent historical markers, including the marker signifying the final resting place of Edward R. Bowman, who received a Medal of Honor for his service with the US Navy during the Civil War.
In subsequent class periods, my students worked collaboratively through Spiral Educations’s Team Up Activity to compile their findings and create a presentation featuring and honoring the service of our local veterans.
While taking a walking field trip to take pictures was a simple process, the learning that it enabled for my students and me was complex. This activity not only made the stories we were exploring in our literature class real, but it also deepened our understanding of the service that local Eastporters have provided to our nation and helped to capture the giving spirit of our community.
On this Memorial Day, I am grateful for the service of those buried in Hillside Cemetery in Eastport, Maine and those like them around the nation who have suffered so that we can prosper. We will continue to learn and gain inspiration from your stories of service and sacrifice…even in the academic doldrums of May.