Renee Stanec ’20 knew that her maternal grandparents had been forced into a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. As a sophomore in 20th Century World History this year, she researched her family’s history and learned that her great-grandfather had been arrested in his bakery and detained without being allowed to change his clothes or collect his belongings. An interview with her grandmother gave Renee a new look at this part of her country’s history. She said, “Through my research I have been able to see not only the perspective of Japanese-Americans at the time, but also other citizens and the government, the mass hysteria that was felt throughout the country during World War II.”
For teenagers, national and international events that happened before they were born can feel distant and irrelevant. Upper School History and Social Studies Teacher Dr. Tanya Roth engages her students to dig deeper into the recent past through the prism of one person’s experience. The Documentary Project, a multi-term assignment, uses a variety of resources to explore a significant world event through first-hand perspective. The heart of this project—an interview with someone who lived through and was affected by the event—personalizes what can feel like a remote historical event. At the end, students have a ten-minute documentary, a deeper understanding of one piece of history and the skills to find information through intensive research.
Kindertransport, a British rescue effort responsible for saving 10,000 Jewish children from almost certain death during World War II, has intrigued Joey Flom ’20 for years, so he interviewed a survivor. “Hearing his personal experiences was entirely different than reading a textbook,” Joey said.
Each year, the project broadens student views of past events while providing perspective on a wider range of similar topics. John Curylo ’20 learned just that as he explored martial law in 1980s Cold War Poland through the experiences of his grandfather.
“I had always known that this was a stressful era; nevertheless, this interview truly taught me the extent of the Soviet’s sphere of influence that had fallen upon Eastern Europe,” he said. “This project challenged me because it is quite difficult to interview someone who has such a deep-rooted hate for the regime that had taken control of his life and society.”
Part of the process includes discovering the inherent unpredictability in the evolution of research and stories. “They need to be open to things they don’t expect, to be prepared to go in a different direction to follow the story,” said Dr. Roth. “They wrestle with losing control of the story, and that’s part of the process.” Joey Flom’s first interview subject declined at the last minute, telling him Kindertransport was simply too difficult for her to discuss, even now. He persevered, and connected with George through the Holocaust Center. Renee Stanec explored the post-war redress program for Japanese Americans.
Through research and college-level literature reviews, students begin to focus on specific issues. “I ask them to think about the big themes they find in their research, and to consider how it shaped their thoughts,” said Dr. Roth. They spend weeks familiarizing themselves with the content from their interviews, determining what’s relevant and contributes to the project. A 30-minute interview will typically yield about five minutes of good content for the documentary.
Ceci Cohen ’20 learned more about her grandfather’s time in the Military Provincial Health Assistance Program during the Vietnam War. “Growing up, I heard anecdotes,” she said. “It was very exciting to learn why he was in Vietnam, what he did exactly, about his living conditions and the other Americans there, and about the impact he had on his Vietnamese patients.”
The students write scripts and assemble story boards, learning critical analytical skills by breaking footage down into small chunks to understand what content is needed to tell the story effectively. Organization and planning are key as they continue working their way through the 20th Century while completing their documentaries. Ceci Cohen said, “One of the most challenging things for me has been the final stretch: during the end of the second trimester not only did we create a storyboard and a script, and put the documentary together, we also had to write our final essay and take our final exam. This was a great experience to improve time management skills.”
“It’s fascinating to see what they come up with each year,” said Dr. Roth. In the past, students have explored a variety of subjects, including the Los Angeles Riots, Operation Pedro Pan, anti-German sentiment in post-war Brazil, and the space shuttle Challenger explosion.
Joey Flom said, “I feel that a project like this is important for students to do because simply reading, or listening to a teacher describe history, isn’t enough to really learn. To be able to truly understand a historical event, one has to take the time to learn from primary and secondary sources.” When history becomes personal, it comes to life.