How I got my history students to connect with the past

Wednesday August 17, 2016

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School trips don’t just turn textbook concepts into real life; many educational tours can be truly inspiring, offering an unparalleled, life-changing level of learning, as experienced by St Aloysius College. The London-based school’s history department has taken its students to a number of historic destinations, where their aim was to help pupils connect with the emotional events of war.

Geraldine Rimmer, group leader of history trips at St Aloysius College, has made many observations from arranging school tours. By taking students to explore WWI Battlefields, Berlin, Washington and New York, students can better comprehend the aftermath and severity of conflict.

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Experiencing WWI Battlefields

Student activity: Before the trip to WWI Battlefields, Geraldine tells pupils about past students who were involved in the battle, which brings the conflict much closer to home – an interesting way to help pupils relate to war.

Ypes and Somme are must-visit destinations for history school trips. Students can experience the harsh daily life of troops in WWI at the 1916 Somme Museum, visit preserved German trenches at Croonaert Wood, and take part in workshops that help bring the past events to the present.

Both destinations help students to put the war into context, as Geraldine points out: “The war was such a long time ago and people don’t always ‘get it’”.

Study activity: Ask your students to imagine what it was like during World War I and task them with writing a descriptive piece.                                                 

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium

Tyne Cot Cemetary

Image: firstworldwar.com

Visiting Tyne Cot Cemetery is a poignant, moving experience, showing the heart-wrenching aftermath of war. The cemetery is the biggest burial place for Commonwealth soldiers, with graves for 11,954 servicemen. Through the entrance of the cemetery, students capture their first glance of the Cross of Sacrifice, otherwise known as the Great Cross. This iconic monument stands tall, affixed with a bronze sword, and positions as a commemoration to all those who lost their lives.

Thiepval Memorial, France

Thiepval Memorial

Alongside the Tyne Cot Cemetery, Geraldine took her students to Thiepval Memorial in France, a vast cemetery to 72,246 missing British and South African soldiers, who died in the Battle of the Somme. The Thiepval Memorial is a stunning commemorative arch, built from four interlocking arches. The Union Jack flag flies on the northern side of the monument, while the French flag flies on the southern side, to reflect the positioning of troops on the Somme battlefield in 1916.

Interesting teaching resource: Remembering the Battle of the Somme.

While visiting these two resting places of brave soldiers, students lay wreaths in remembrance of the past students involved in the war. This, Geraldine says, enabled students to “begin to think of the war as individual stories and not just names.”

Exploring the effects of World War II, Berlin

School trips to Berlin offer an extensive and thought-provoking insight into the rise of Nazism and the shocking events of the Holocaust. A key study visit is the House of the Wannsee Conference, which Geraldine’s students visited. This educational, memorial site was where the fateful decision was made to deport and murder all European Jews in the occupied areas of Eastern Europe and Poland on 20th January 1942. Its permanent exhibition teaches students about the mass deportation and genocide of Jewish citizens as well as the aftermath of National Socialism.

Interesting teaching resource: German Jews and the Holocaust explains pre-war life using rare home video footage from a German, Jewish family.

Sachsenhausen Museum and Memorial

Sachsenhausen

St Aloysius College’s trip to Berlin also covered Sachsenhausen, one of the earliest concentration camps. Visiting this vast site exposes the grim reality of Nazi Germany, while tours through the camp introduces students to the tragedies faced by its residents, brought together in a somber yet inspiring experience. Sachsenhausen now stands as a tribute to the 50,000 who died there and the 60,000 who were held captive.

Study activity: Why not get your students to trace back their family tree to see if any relatives were affected by World War II?

German Resistance Memorial Center

German Resistance

Image: gdw-berlin.de

This educational centre teaches students about the action took against the National Socialist rule. An inspiring, permanent exhibition introduces the aims and actions of those involved with the resistance, and the response from the Nazi dictatorship.

Geraldine says: “You cover a lot of doom and gloom when visiting Sachsenhausen and the House of the Wannsee Conference, but the Resistance Museum gave students a very positive message to help them understand that some did resist the Nazi regime.”

Study activity: Ask your students to write down what freedom means for them to help explain the controlled and tyrannical Nazi rule.

Learning about the American Civil War, USA

Geraldine has also taken students on history tours of the United States of America, including Washington and New York, to further explain American history.

Interesting teaching resource: Video clip explaining the economic and moral context of the American Civil War.

Gettysburg National Park

Gettysburg

A highlight of the trips for Geraldine and the pupils was visiting Gettysburg National Park. The site of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War, the park has been restored to depict its appearance during this iconic fight. Students can explore the relief effort for the war, including hospital areas, as well as browse artifacts in the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center, and reflect during a visit to the cemetery.

Geraldine says: “Their time in Gettysburg really brought the story of the Civil War to life”.

Geraldine’s top tips for arranging your first history trip

  • “Think about the ages of your students and plan in advance what you want to cover. Be clear with your Tour Operator what you want to do but be open to their ideas and advice.”
  • “Get some good guide books to read beforehand. Throughout the trip the students will always look to you for various bits of information.”
  • “ENJOY!”

WST Support

At WST, we arrange educational history tours to a number of destinations, including Ypres and Somme, Berlin, Krakow, and the USA. History tours bring facts pupils know about war to life, in compelling, provoking and stimulating ways, through exploration and workshop participation.

If you’re interested in planning a history school trip, speak to a member of our friendly travel team who will be happy to help.

Geraldine says: “Carole Burrows at WST is very supportive, gives lots of good advice and we have a very positive working relationship. She knows what I want.”