Written by Education Intern, Rae R.
With a teaching career spanning 27.5 years, Jennifer Whitson knows the meaning of “busy” very well. A teacher at Steelville Middle School in Steelville, Missouri, Whitson has led her students in a multitude of projects designed to honor Vietnam veterans. From working on submitting photos to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s (VVMF)Wall of Faces, to working with her students to install her county’s own Vietnam era monument (in addition to teaching six middle school history classes), this teacher is the epitome of busy.
There’s no doubt most teachers echo Whitson’s sentiments. Teachers today are busier than ever, but Whitson has this advice to those educators who might feel hesitant to engage in service learning projects, such as VVMF’s Hometown Heroes, due to time and resources: “It takes time, yes, but it’s more gratifying than any book would ever be. The kids get more from the hands-on component of projects, and they learn more in a very deep, real way. There’s absolutely more genuine learning- no memorizing or regurgitating facts. With these projects, the kids want to be successful, and they’re doing it for the right reasons.”
In conjunction with their county’s new Vietnam War Era monument, for which Whitson and her students have been tirelessly fundraising and planning, they are also planning a dedication ceremony, a welcome home parade, and a Wall of Faces in their own county, to honor their community’s local Vietnam veterans.
The monument and dedication ceremony for Vietnam veterans has been another big undertaking by Whitson and her students, although they are now in the final stages of planning. “At this point, our job is choosing the stone!” she says proudly. To raise money for the community’s monument, students have been using their time, talents, and interests in various ways, working rodeos and concession stands, organizing bake sales, selling jean passes to faculty and staff in the Middle School, hosting a dinner theatre and a trivia night, and selling T-shirts. The students are even expecting one or two senators, in addition to state representatives, to make an appearance at their dedication ceremony.
Most importantly, the learning happening through these service projects is both strengthening students’ understanding of the Vietnam War and era, and also helping students grow into engaged citizens. “The kids are learning about the war from a different perspective, and they’re really engaged,” Whitson explains. She sees her students growing in character and in empathy. From conducting interviews with veterans, to volunteering their time to raise money, to conducting research for the Wall of Faces in Washington, D.C., in addition to their community’s own Wall of Faces, “these kids are sucked into everything related to the Vietnam War and era, and they’re sucked into everything these men and women of that era will tell them.” For oral history interviews, for example, 7th graders had to make contact with veterans, arrange meetings, sit down to interview them, have dynamic questions ready, and respond to the veterans with empathy and maturity.
Whitson says she’s grateful for the resources the VVMF provided her, such as the Hometown Heroes curriculum and the Echoes from The Wall curriculum. “I’ve gone through Echoes [from The Wall’s teacher guide] quite a bit, and I pull little pieces out and make it my own. I’ve pulled information and ideas from four or five different places, and I always find something useful.” Whitson’s advice to teachers is to tailor the VVMF lesson plans and projects to the needs of their students. For example, although she teaches four classes of ancient oral history, one enrichment class, and one current events class, Whitson has found a way to incorporate the Vietnam era projects in some of her classes. “Don’t be afraid to think big- you can always whittle it down if you need to. Think big, go big,” she says.
Jennifer Whitson and her students serve as models of service learning done “big.” When classroom learning about the Vietnam era is enriched and reinforced through service to others, the results are truly remarkable. It’s no surprise, then, that nothing has been more gratifying, more meaningful, and more engaging to this busy teacher than her classes’ work and dedication in honoring America’s veterans.
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