Students Connecting with Veterans: The Harlem Veteran Project

We have published a number of blog posts featuring the work of the Veterans History Project (VHP) and how teachers can incorporate these resources in classroom activities. As we approach Memorial Day, we wanted to feature a teacher who has worked with his students to collect the stories of the veterans living in their community. Nick Stange, a teacher at Harlem High School in Machesney Park, Illinois, participated in a panel discussion of  teachers who shared how they used the oral histories from the VHP. We asked Nick and one of his colleagues, David W. Johnson, to discuss their work. We hope this post will encourage you to learn more about the VHP, make use of primary source sets drawn from the VHP, and explore Teaching with the Library of Congress to find other teaching ideas that highlight the resources of this important program.

Nick Stange

Nick Stange

David Johnson

David Johnson

Imagine being able to learn from the personal accounts of American Veterans, from Okinawa to Berlin, from Chosin Reservoir to the 38th Parallel, and from Saigon to Hanoi. Now imagine comparing those narratives to personal Japanese Internment Camp stories, accounts of “Rosie the Riveters,” and WWII refugee stories. These first-hand accounts of American heroes, and the people they saved and served, can all be directly infused into any classroom through student-produced documentaries from the Harlem Veteran Project.

Students from Harlem High School in Machesney Park, Illinois, have begun recording and preserving oral histories of local veterans, from the homefront and abroad. Students learn interview techniques, as well as script writing and storyboarding of ideas, both abstract and concrete. These activities foster critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and leadership. Students learn editing software, filming techniques, and the massive logistics of film direction and production. These skills provide students with 21st Century tools for success.

Students can also learn the vast lessons of America’s war generations and the power of oral history by studying veterans stories. The documentaries can be used as primary sources to create “Video DBQs” to help students interpret specific perspectives of wartime in America, while offering authentic insights into American veterans beyond the battles, treaties, and policy described in textbooks. Students can analyze those stories and synthesize the perspectives offered to develop deeper meaning within social/political issues within American History Units.

For example: The teacher can pose the question: “What was the effect of the United States media on the morale of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam?”

Students will then watch documentaries of Vietnam veterans and learn first-hand what the feeling was among the U.S. troops. Many of the veterans the Harlem Veteran Project has interviewed have diverse feelings toward the U.S. media and its coverage of the war. For example, almost every Vietnam Veteran the Harlem Veteran Project has interviewed had a very strong opinion on Jane Fonda. Students could then research Jane Fonda and develop an understanding of the anti-war movement of the 1960s in addition to understanding the details of combat and life in Vietnam. The students’ research and analysis of the videos could be presented to a class, expressed in an essay, or debated with classmates.

Teachers can access these oral histories through the Illinois Veterans & Community Classroom Project. The site includes documentaries from Harlem High School, as well as 25 other participating Illinois schools.


Want other ideas on how to incorporate material from the Veterans History Project in classroom activities? Here are some suggestions from the Library of Congress:

Students can listen to a few of the interviews from the section on patriotism and identify different ways in which the veterans describe or express their views on patriotism, and compare their responses. How does listening to the different responses change their views on the definition of patriotism.

Encourage students to read some of the letters sent home to family and friends and to find differences and similarities in the letters written during different wars. Ask the students to pretend they are overseas during wartime and write a letter to a family member or friend. What would they want to know?

Information on how to record an interview and submit it to the Library can be found in a kit from the VHP.

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