It’s August once again, and inevitably we begin thinking about the beginning of school. While many students in this country do not start until after Labor Day, most of us in the Rocky Mountain West start in late August. Our community college classes start on August 24, with faculty returning the week before. What spread out before me in May as a long and restful summer is coming to a crashing and busy end. But what I didn’t know when school ended in May was how my plans for the fall would change.
About a week ago, a friend of mine called and asked me if I would be interested in using her extensive research and material about American prisoners of war in WWII for a writing class, designing some way to help her begin to create curriculum to use the material she has collected over that last 20 years. All it took was one meeting with her to make me realize that I had just been given an incredible gift, a chance for students to work with primary source material, for them to learn history from letters, to learn about real people experiencing real hardship.
I have now rewritten the course outline for my English 1010 (college comp ) classes, designed a final project and decided on readings and on writing assignments. Luckily, I can do this easily, but what is important here, is not that I can do this, but that I should do this. As teachers, it is too easy to rely on the “same-old, same –old,” the tried and probably not so true material and techniques. Writing texts are generally boring, generally not exciting, but going straight to a primary source, (in this case, letters from POWs) is fresh, is new and will fire the imaginations of students who are, for the most part, expecting school to be a not very exciting necessity.
The world is too rich a place for school to be dull, but school is dull if teachers are not excited about what they are doing. I am thrilled to have access to some new material even if it means a little extra work. I am lucky to have had this opportunity dumped in my lap. It is often too easy to say no, to come up with an excuse about not having time or not feeling comfortable trying something new at the last minute, but we miss out on so much unless we are willing to jump in, to take a chance, experiment. Writing can be taught in almost any context, and I, for one, do not want to read essays about what someone did on their summer vacation. I would rather read essays in which students struggle with new ideas that have been generated by reading things these students have never read before, generated by students grappling how others have coped with terrible experiences.
Besides the primary sources of the letters themselves, we will be reading two books, The Railway Man by Erik Lomax and Escape from Davao by John D. Lucas. The Lomax book is a first hand account of his imprisonment and torture by the Japanese during the war. Lomax ultimately, many years later, meets one of the men who tortured him. He comes to understand that the experience of torture is as damaging to the torturer as it is to the tortured. In this times when the United States has clearly engaged in torture of many people, this book will, I hope, provoke many conversations about the futility of war and of torture.
I cannot think of a more exciting way to begin my last year of teaching before I retire.