Three years ago, the Australian National Maritime Museum and the New South Wales Department of Education partnered together to create a student-centered research program to engage high school students with stories from World War II.
The partnership expanded internationally to include schools from across Australia, Japan and the United States that allowed students to create original documentaries about people, events and places during the war.
This past year, Academy of the Canyons (AOC) was one of eight schools from Australia, America and Japan to create video documentaries about significant battles in the Pacific as part of the “War and Peace in the Pacific 75 Years” project. Each documentary, including AOC’s, told stories of WWII from the perspective of their home nation, city and culture.
“We found out about it because another one of our teachers had been involved in an international program though the state department so he was contacted as a possible teacher who would want to lead the project,” said AOC teacher Jessica Ruiz, who led the project with fellow teacher Jerry Malkowski. “He forwarded the opportunity to me and another teacher who I am teaching a class with.”
The two teachers then passed along the opportunity to students in their 20th Century War class who, together, created their own 40-minute documentary about the Battle of the Coral Sea, a major naval battle between the three countries from May 4 to May 8, 1942.
Creating the Documentary
Once they were assigned their WWII event, the students were split into various groups to study primary sources, collect artifacts, conduct interviews, talk to experts and film and produce the documentary.
“We divided our students into teams based on what they were interested in,” Ruiz said. “I had no idea where it was going to take us and they directed that entire process.”
One of the group leaders, senior Sara Cole, was especially excited to begin her research and immerse herself in various primary sources.
“It’s all original research, I was automatically super excited since this was my wheelhouse,” Cole said. “Myself and one other person who helped lead the project, Xander Roos, we ended up going through the years 1941 to 1946 in The Signal newspaper archives back when it was called the Newhall Signal.”
Through this research, Cole and Roos learned about a land feud between ranchers, movie studio owners and military officers that occurred during the time of the war.
“Those three factions were warring over the same plots of land here… it was all sort of buried in the archives,” Cole said. “Then we all sort of worked together to consolidate our research and frame it as a story to tell the story of where we lived.”
The students then worked to write the copy for the documentary, film its components and piece different information and interviews together.
“It ended up being amazing because there was so much local connection and Southern California connection that we had no clue about,” Ruiz said. “It was the first major carrier battle of the world and the airplane was manufactured in Burbank and they used our local community in Santa Clarita for training. The U.S. Army had been using a lot of the land for training for the planes, it was a total local connection that we didn’t know about.”
Impact on Students
For some students, the opportunity to explore historical research and create an original documentary was nothing short of life changing.
“What they really loved about it was owning it and having it be theirs and they got to totally determine the direction of the project,” Ruiz said.
For others, it reaffirmed their passions and desires to pursue a college degree and career in history and the classics.
“If we don’t pay attention to this stuff it’s not going to be here anymore, these people are not going to be here to listen to. If no one takes time to record history as personal experience and not just as dates in a book then it’s just going to be gone,” said Cole, who wants to become a curator, lawyer or teacher. “I’m a history and classics major so that kind of stuff is facilitating stories using history, specifically facilitating empathy is what I’m really passionate about.”
Through her future careers, Cole said she hopes to share history with others and make it accessible to all students so they can learn lessons from the past.
“The person that you are, the thoughts that you have, everybody has that, everybody is their own microcosm of the world and I think it would be a much nicer place to live in if we were all respectful of the fact that we’re all really, really complicated,” Cole said. “Looking at history that way helps you look at the future that way, too.”
Ruiz plans to facilitate the international project again with her students this spring.
“They have another project coming up next month looking at how WWII impacted the home front,” Ruiz said. “Instead of looking at actual battles during the war we’re looking at how people’s lives were changed on the home front.”
And students, like Cole, plan to lead the project again to help get other, younger students excited about learning history in a hands-on way.
“I know they’re trying to make it a tradition,” Cole said, “and it’s a great tradition to have because it was exhilarating.”
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_