Beaver teacher teams with Veterans to take Sixth Grade Students on a trip to Washington DC

Submitted by Pamala Learn, Dutch Ridge Elementary Teacher

On May 13, 2019, 29 sixth grade students teamed with 46 Veterans to experience the War Memorials in Washington DC. Students and Veterans walked the National Mall together and toured Arlington Cemetery. For many it was the first time visiting the Nation’s Capital, for others it was a return to deep memories. One thing is for sure, it was a learning event for all. How does such a trip happen? It is born from real life and requires teamwork, persistence and creativity.

There are moments in a person’s life that help to shape that person, moments that touch the heart, change the mind, and sometimes crush a spirit. These moments, powerful as they are, serve as springboards that define our futures.

I was 12 years old when my moment happened. We were at an old Pittsburgh diner, with a red table and a small jukebox on the wall. I was sitting across from Mr. Light, one of the owners of Light Brothers Wholesale House my family would frequent. Mr. Light was older, a kind man with gentle eyes. He always had a smile on his face when we talked and he seemed to really listen. That lunch was like all the others, he and my grandfather would chat about business while I would play around with the jukebox. As they talked, I looked to Mr. Light and I noticed the same number written on his arm. It was always there, dark and crude looking, something that was awkwardly written in haste, almost abrupt. It was alien on such a man like Mr. Light. Without thinking, I traced my 12-year-old finger across the translucent wrinkled skin of his arm, right over the number. I asked why he always had that number there? Did he need it for work?Why didn’t he take it off? At that moment I remember how his whole face changed. What was usually kind and sweet now held a deep untouchable sadness. In a whisper, Mr. Light told me words of suffering, pain, loss. It was the first time Auschwitz was ever spoken to me. Holocaust. Death. That moment defined me. I didn’t know it then and it would take years to grow, but Mr. Light planted something in me that day, something that never left. Touching history does that. It forces change upon us even if we don’t see it right away, creates dreams we don’t even know we have yet.

Everyone has these moments and they manifest themselves differently. Mine was to grow into a history teacher. I could give you all the reasons to teach history, we know them… so we don’t make the same mistakes, to heal wounds, to make our future better–to be better people.

These are all very true, but to truly have depth in that understanding and to act upon it, now that is true learning. To do that, to really make a difference, especially to kids, the history has to be real, has to be honest, and has to express what it was truly like to live it.

Creating such events for my students has always been a goal and it really began to happen when one of my students, Logan Frank, had a grandpa who was a WWII Veteran. Mr. Frank came to our class and spoke to the kids about his experience as an infantry man, literally walking his way across Europe. He brought artifacts, both German and US. He let the kids touch them, feel them. All of a sudden, history became real. It wasn’t words in a book, a homework assignment, it was real breathing life.

Mr. Frank brought us to the Veteran’s Breakfast Club. If you have never experienced a Veteran’s Breakfast Club, I suggest you do. The Breakfast Club provides an indispensable lifelong learning opportunity. By going to the breakfasts, we have met many Veterans. We’ve gotten to know them personally and each time we meet, they have a new story, an experience ready to tell. They share these experiences for all they are, good, bad, and everything in between. Each Veteran becomes a person with real heroic accomplishments, regrets, and struggles. Such wonderful people they are! At the breakfasts we see history living and breathing.

It was one of my Veterans that helped to foster my dream, taking kids to Washington DC. Our history lives there in the monuments. The sacrifice, the duty, the honor… all live there. It was my dream to get my kids there and experience that real history. What better way to do it then to experience it with Veterans, the very people who the monuments honor. Jerry Fisher, a Vietnam Vet who sponsors Veteran trips to DC, provided encouragement and guidance to help make that dream come true.

Our students met with the Veterans in DC to tour the monuments and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We spent time at the Vietnam memorial. As we were trudging through the downpour to the memorial, we came upon one of our Veterans, William Silver. Corporal Silver served as a Marine, Special Forces. We saw his fingers as they touched two names etched on the wall, tears fell down his cheek, the depth of his sadness so open. My students stood beside him, watching him. With a shaking voice he shared his story of the two soldiers who gave the biggest sacrifice, of watching their deaths happen and his powerlessness to change it. His tears, his words, his pain reached from the stone wall right to my students. It hurt to watch, to see his pain so open. I knew this was a moment my students would not soon forget.

Through the Veteran’s Breakfast, my students meet Mr. Guy Prestia, a WWII veteran. On each visit he shares a story of serving all over the world, especially Europe. When Mr. Prestia shares a story, it’s like you are listening in on an amazing adventure. He has a way of speaking that leaves you hanging on every word. His eyes have a twinkle as he tells of the time he left the hospital to go back to the front before he was allowed. My students listened as he relayed his story of fighting the Germans and liberating Dauchu. He said the word with a softness that made the kids lean in to hear. Walking skeletons, death, crematorium, the effects of hate. I watched my students’ faces, their eyes as the realization sunk in.

As an educator, I strive to provide real learning for my students. Every story my Veterans and Holocaust survivor tells, every trip, every artifact, every speaker, every experience will be another step in their lives towards becoming all they are meant to be.

Think back to your years as a student. What learning stands out for you? It probably was not an assignment or even a project. More than likely it was a moment in “real life” that was your turning point, just like touching Mr. Light’s tattooed arm was for me. I want to give my students that moment. I want to saturate their 6th grade year with experiences that provoke real learning, future dreams, endless possibilities.

Student Testimonials

Tyler Biss, Grade 7

I’d have to say my experience on the Washington DC Trip was just unforgettable. Hearing veterans tell us amazing stories of bravery, courageous moments, and just what they did in the military. I also can’t forget about the Holocaust speaker. The unimaginable events that he told us really inspired most, hopefully all of us to help never allow this horrible tragedy to ever happen again. However, my favorite part of the trip was the Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier. Seeing the guards interchange was a sight to remember. I really enjoyed the trip and I hope future attendees will enjoy it also.

Caden Canavesi, Grade 7

On my trip to Washington DC I had a lot of fun and learned some very good lessons that I will never forget. On this trip we went with veterans to multiple memorial sites, including the Tomb of The Unknown Solider. We went to the Korean Memorial where we asked some of the veterans from the Korean War and even WWII many questions about their experience. I really learned how dangerous the wars they fought were. Before this, I didn’t really think much about the conflicts that America had with other countries, but now that I went it was a real eye opener.

It also taught me respect for the people that fight for our Country then and now. They have all gained my utmost respect. One thing that stands out to me is that there are limited people that have that opportunity to learn what happened and what others sacrifice to try to make this a better world. One thing that I remember was a veteran Marine Corporal and his squad was ambushed during the Vietnam war and tried to call air support with bullets screaming though the air some men got hurt but they fought back, and no one died, and he received the Medal of Honor. I did enjoy traveling with my friends and talking about what the other vets did. The trip was one that I will never forget.

Mom-chaperone, Jordan Canavesi

As a parent attending this opportunity, I can say I witnessed the kids have moments of shear fun with their peers and teachers and moments of shear awe for what they were being told and experiencing. Watching the children move from veteran to veteran at the war memorials listening to these veterans LIVES being told, not stories, but their memories, so fresh that you would have thought they happened yesterday, was amazing. The kids were captivated by their words and touched by their emotion for brothers they never knew prior to the war. It was amazing to me to listen to these men tell what they were willing to sacrifice for each other, guys they barely knew in most cases, just to stay alive and fight for a cause they’re hearts believed in. Today, it’s hard to get kids to work together in groups in the classroom or even adults to work together to form a solution to a problem let alone to sacrifice for another anything they care about, but these men were willing to give their LIVES for each other to band together as brothers for a common goal. Many of them had never seen the men they were looking for on those walls after the war, but their eyes glistened with memories of the person for which they desperately searched. The bond was true and noble. I saw it and the kids saw it.

I realized this day when I looked at one the few WWII vets who attended that soon there will be no more of their kind. My grandfather was a WWII vet and in that moment of looking at that gentleman I wished I could hug my pap once more and thank him for all he did for me and my kids to live the lives we live. I wish I would have asked more questions. I wish I would have listened to more “boring stories” when I was younger. I wish… well a lot of things but one thing is for sure – I’ll NEVER say, “I wish my son would have learned more and experienced more. I should have sent him on that veteran trip to learn more about my grandfather’s and others’ sacrifices”. This is one wish I fulfilled for my son and in turn for myself. Thank you.

Ezra Maize, Grade 7

In the year 2019, on May 13th, I was given the privilege to be taken by coach to Washington D.C. My parents were very excited about the trip, as they told me it’s not every day you get this kind of opportunity. I realize now just how this trip shaped my love and appreciation of US history and culture, along with respect for our veterans. Earlier in the year, students could sign up for a veterans breakfast. For a short bus ride, we could sit down with those who risked their lives for our freedom. Soon after, our social studies teacher Mrs. Learn brought to our attention the Social Studies Club. I was interested, so I went to a meeting that took place during lunch, and Mrs. Learn told us we would be taking a day long trip to Washington D.C. towards the end of the year. I was slightly skeptical, being that the farthest I had ever been out of state was Ohio. My Mom convinced me to go, and I’m so glad she did.

The one place I remembered the most was the changing of the guard, in Arlington Cemetery, at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I remember this because of how silent and orderly everything was. The guard may as well have been a robot, because his walking was perfect. When they did the changing of the guard, I was astonished at how smooth the motions were. Finally, the trumpeter played TAPS while facing the tomb. When I was learning about the guarding of the tomb in earlier years, my teacher said that the soldier has to wear the same clothing, no matter the weather or other conditions. You can tell the pavement he walks on is very worn away from years of marching. Another thing that stood out to me, was that during TAPS, even the veterans that were no longer employed, saluted. I was tearing up at the sheer respect they had for these soldiers who were lost in combat, when no one knew their names.
I too have a similar respect for our country and its military. For these reasons, I will never regret going to Washington D.C. no matter the conditions.

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