In 2017, former President George W. Bush published a book featuring a collection of oil paintings and partnering stories about military veterans. This book was his effort to commemorate veterans he had personally met. This Veteran’s Day, we wanted to engage students to not only think about and commemorate veterans, but to rethink their perceptions of what a veteran is.
As usual, we want each of our service learning projects to be as hands-on and local community-oriented as possible. So, this year, we decided to bring the Portraits of Courage into the classroom by inviting veterans from our own community, from each branch of service, to the classroom. Students had the opportunity to interview, converse with, ask questions of, and now to draw the portraits of these veterans.
Here are just a few things we learned through this multidisciplinary project:
Service Above Self:
At 2nd Nature Academy, we are always trying to teach our students that they are a member of many communities— their family community, their town or city community, their school community, their national and global community, etc.– and being part of a community means thinking not only about themselves, but other community members. Talking with veterans was a way for students to see this concept on a different scale and from a different perspective– the idea of putting your comforts and privileges aside for a greater good.
Hard Work & Responsibility:
We teach responsibility at school through barn chores, classroom jobs, and taking care of class pets. Hearing from veterans about the process of joining and being part of the military provided another perspective on hard work and the meaning of responsibility.
Interview & Writing Skills:
It’s not easy to stand up in front of a class and make a presentation or to share your work with your peers… it’s even more difficult to speak to someone you don’t know, to someone who is older than you and, especially, someone who seems very different from you. Sitting down and interviewing these veterans was an opportunity to step out of our comfort zones and learn from someone new.
Students had to consider not only what questions they would want to ask their guests, but they had to consider their backgrounds and experiences while forming these questions. It was a practice in both research and empathy to decide what sorts of questions would be appropriate, and what sorts of questions would really get to the heart of the project. We talked about the difference between meaningful and insensitive or invasive questions.
After the interview, students had to learn how to compose biographies that were both interesting and truthful to the experience of the conversation.
Dispel Preconceived Stigmas:
The most important part of this exercise was for students to go into the interviews and conversations with an open mind and the willingness to change their opinions. These students spoke with veterans of different genders and ages, with veterans who had seen combat, and veterans who were working behind the scenes. This variety, and the willingness of the veterans to show up and share their experiences, allowed students to learn from and understand that the experience of the military is varied and what we see on the news or on the street is not always the whole picture.
This project also allowed us to overlap and connect subjects, so that students could see that the military and veteran experience is multi-dimensional and far-reaching. This process looked into history, geography, language arts, fine arts, journalism, and service learning. This project allowed students to move fluidly between factual storytelling, which must be anchored by the truthful experience of another, and their own creative exploration of their experience through creating the portraits of these individuals that they met and learned from. They were able to match the experience of another with their own interpretation of that individual.