Telling the Untold Stories of World War I Soldiers, Sailors and Marines at Suresnes American Cemetery
Students from the American School of Paris (ASP) clustered around headstones at Suresnes American Cemetery last week with pens and notebooks in hand, forming research questions about the Americans honored there. Three teenage girls sat on the grass near one headstone, working together to think through some of the questions. Amelie, one of the students, asked: “Why did he become a soldier?” “Did he have a diary during the war?” “Why is he buried in France?” But this visit wasn’t just a one-day field trip to the American World War I cemetery outside of Paris, rather it served as the starting point for an entirely new student project.
Gathered with his students on the cemetery grounds that day, their teacher, Thomas Neville, announced the classes’ new assignment—the Monuments Project. With more than 35,000 Americans buried or memorialized overseas from World War I, there are thousands of untold stories, and the students learned they would be uncovering some of these unknown, personal histories. “This is very valuable because this soldier never lived on to tell his story, and should have the chance to be known, since he did a great service to his country,” said Katie, one of the students, in reflecting after the visit.
Through a connection with an American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) staff member in the Paris area, Neville and ABMC began working through this project idea in the fall of 2016. “Very little is known about a lot of the people buried at Suresnes,” said Neville. “That’s a perfect problem statement to begin with. That’s an authentic experience for the students.” And as the idea evolved, Neville found a trans-Atlantic connection to expand the effort and bring on a partner school that had done a similar project in the past.
Anthony Rovente, a social studies teacher with Lopez Island Middle High School (LIMHS), teaches in a school on an island off the coast of Washington state. Accessible only by ferry, Rovente is constantly trying to use technology in his classroom to bridge this geographic gap. Last year, one of his classes embarked on ProjectWA, an effort that focused on lesser known aspects of Washington state history delivered via a smartphone app. When Neville began researching for this new project with the cemetery, he came across a story about Rovente and ProjectWA. Because Neville and Rovente both loved the concept of connecting history with place, teaming their classes up together to tackle the stories at Suresnes American Cemetery seemed like a perfect fit.
Just months after the initial idea began to take form, the project came to life the week of April 17, 2017 for about 100 students in France and Washington State. The classes began working together to research the lives of soldiers who entered the service from Washington in World War I. During the course of the next six weeks, students will work with local archives in France, and the Washington State Office of the Secretary of State to research in both physical and digital archives, aiming to dig up primary sources that paint a fuller picture of the individual.
The whole process will be documented online for others to see. “On the website they will be documenting through photo, video and blogging,” said Neville “We’ll confront how difficult research can be—that some of the stories might lead them to dead ends. We want them to be learning those lessons and reflecting.” He spent months preparing for the launch of this project. The Monuments Project website, built and designed by Neville, isn’t just a clearinghouse for student research. It’s also a blueprint and toolkit to help the students on their research journey, and to assess their progress along the way. Neville built in tutorials, infographics, and templates. He even modelled the research approach for the students by digging into the life and background of Homer Ward, one of the soldiers buried in Suresnes American Cemetery. With a passion for tackling real-world questions, Neville could not rely on an existing template. He had to build a process, project and website that went well beyond typical teacher expectations.
The end goal is that the Monuments Project will tell the untold stories of some of the service members buried or memorialized in Suresnes American Cemetery, with the project culminating in the launch of a mobile app in June 2017. “As an education technology coach, this is a dream project. It’s a model of seamless tech integration” said Claude Lord, an instructional technology coach at ASP. “This is about global connections, and solving real problems.”
The stories uncovered by the students also will live on the Monuments Project website, which will house a digital archive, crowdsourced ArcGIS Map, and a blog documenting the program. The app will provide a powerful, place-based entry point to the cemetery with individual graves being represented as pins on a map. Clicking on a pin will reveal an introductory primary source and information about that individual, their background, and experience during the war.
“We need to reevaluate the artifacts our students create by the end of a semester or year. If you just have a stagnant grade in a book, how does that contribute to the world.” said Rovente. “This project lives beyond the classroom. It serves a greater purpose.” Everyone involved strongly believes that an authentic experience that adds to our nation’s collective history gives the students a motivation well beyond normal classroom activities. In the end, the students will have created an app that’s free to download, and accessible to anyone in the public. And they will be the proud authors and creators of these untold stories.
But the students quickly realized that getting to this final goal won’t be easy. With limited personal details inscribed on the headstone and needed records being more than 100 years old, finding information won’t be as simple as doing a Google search. “There’s not much information available online that’s easily accessible to us,” said Nicholas during his visit to Suresnes. His partner, Alejandro, chimed in, “It’s a hard problem.” But Neville and Rovente are well aware of the challenges, and will guide the students, giving them the tools they need to be successful.
They’re also hopeful that other teachers will want to embark on similar programs in their classrooms. “We’re organizing the website in a way that any class can jump on board and do their own research,” said Tim Fry, a technology and communications business owner, who’s involved in the app development. “We’re giving people a step by step process for how to do this.”
While it’s uncertain how much information the students will be able to uncover during this project, undoubtedly, they will add to a greater understanding of who fought in the Great War. With more than 2,500 Americans honored at Suresnes American Cemetery, the Monuments Project will give a voice to some of the men and women who died 100 years ago fighting in World War I.
For teachers interested in learning about how to get involved, visit the Monuments Project website. ABMC has more than 200,000 Americans honored at its World War I and World War II sites around the world. There are many more stories to be told.
Established by Congress in 1923, the American Battle Monuments Commission commemorates the service, achievements, and sacrifice of U.S. armed forces. ABMC administers 26 overseas military cemeteries, and 27 memorials, monuments, and markers.