Six years ago, members of the Illinois WWII Memorial Board, concerned that today's students did not understand the sacrifices of their forebears, approached one of the state's learning technology directors.
"Their original idea was that we create a curriculum and give it to teachers," said Vicki DeWitt, now the online professional-development content specialist for the Springfield-based Illinois Principals Association. "I said that's going to end up in a drawer. Let me think about this."
Instead of creating a paper-based resource that mirrored traditional textbooks, DeWitt ultimately engineered the Illinois Veterans and Community Classroom Project, a volunteer effort through which students at 32 schools have conceived, produced, and edited more than 300 short video documentaries about veterans in their state, becoming what DeWitt described as the largest single contributor to the Library of Congress' Veteran's History Project along the way. In settings ranging from yearlong credit-bearing social studies classes to six-week volunteer projects, students learn to conduct historical and archival research, prepare and lead interviews, and use video-editing software. The result is typically a 20-minute documentary telling the story of an Illinoisian who lived through war in some capacity, with a three-minute student reflection at the end.
(To see an example, check out this short student-produced documentary about Ron Harano, who as a child lived for three years in a U.S. internment camp for Japanese-Americans.)
The experience changes both student and subject, said DeWitt, a former classroom teacher and systems engineer for IBM.
"When you first set them down, they're both uncomfortable, but you see this morphing and coming together, and then they adopt one another," she said. "You don't get that out of a textbook."
DeWitt and a small group of high school teachers from the project's showcase school, Harlem High in Illinois' 7,100-student Harlem Comsolidated School District 122, presented the project Sunday at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, or ISTE, being held here this weekend. While the event's massive vendor floor features many high-tech advances and undeniably cool products, the real joy in covering the conference comes in talking with educators like the team from Illinois who take part in poster sessions that highlight the ways technology is being used in the classroom.
The Illinois Veterans project offers a great example of how digital media have been changing the type of project-based instruction that is garnering renewed attention thanks to the rise of the Common Core State Standards.
Take Nicholas Stange, a social studies teacher and nine-year veteran at Harlem High, who described himself as more history buff than ed-tech geek.
Leading his school's documentary project has "completely changed my professional life," Stange said.
"It's definitely not your traditional classroom," he said. "In this class, you actually get to see the light bulb go off every day."
At Harlem High, Stange said, the first quarter of the yearlong veterans' project is typically devoted to a crash course in how to use Adobe Premier (a video-editing software) and extensive historical research to prepare for the interviews. The middle of the year is spent editing those interviews, conducting more research in order to write narration and voice-over that contextualizes the veterans' memories, and engaging in classroom debates. During the final quarter, students work together in groups to identify themes across the videos and prepare for a community presentation that typically draws more than 300 people.
Last year, 42 students took the class, producing documentaries about veterans who fought at D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, served in the Women's Army Corps, and more.
The greatest indicator of the project's success, both Stange and DeWitt said, is the bonds that the students and veterans form—bonds that DeWitt said often put veterans' minds at ease about contemporary youths and the country's future.
"This is the best thing I've ever done," DeWitt said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the entity that the Illinois WWII Memorial Board approached about starting a classroom project. The group approached Vicki DeWitt while she was working as a learning-technology director.