By Betty Paolella
For many, the past two years have changed how educators teach. Amidst this challenge a virtual platform has emerged, providing experiences unlike any other. What once was the traditional classroom is no more. Oceans no longer divide our countries, they connect us by providing messages of peace through the voices of others.
For students and staff in Washington Township (Long Valley), Morris County, the pandemic provided opportunities to connect with history on a very personal level. All fifth grade students in Long Valley studied World War II through not only a historic lens but a literary one as well. With our students, we read novels and various grade-level texts to help connect with and understand both primary and secondary experiences of the events between 1941 and 1945.
Long Valley exceeded state curricular requirements as students learned messages of peace through a human lens. This endeavor came to fruition after connecting with Jennifer Sagon-Taeza from REAL Innovative Connections, based in Mililani, Hawaii. It was through Sagon-Taeza’s nonprofit organization that students explored the war in the Pacific through the lenses of a Pearl Harbor survivor and guided virtual tours of the USS Missouri and the many memorable peace memorials in Hiroshima.
Through the eyes of a Pearl Harbor survivor
Meeting an actual survivor of the bombing of Pearl Harbor was nearly indescribable. Educators watched in awe as the students listened intently to Dorinda Nicholson’s very personal experience on that fateful day, Dec. 7, 1941, when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the naval base near Honolulu drawing the U.S. into World War II. Her audience captivated, she continued to talk about what her life was like after the bombing and the many changes that she underwent as a mere child of six.
Through her eyes, Pearl Harbor was brought to life. More significantly, students learned that through it all, peace was ultimately achieved. It was this peace that became official on the teak-layered deck of the USS Missouri as the instrument of surrender was signed by the Japanese in 1945.
Touring the deck of the USS Missouri left an indelible memory. Seeing firsthand the sheer size of the deck, the weaponry and the plaque that commemorated the signing of surrender created a buzz in the classroom. Students wanted to know more about this majestic ship, along with the warriors who were a part of that fateful day. More importantly, students learned again that peace was established. Amidst the horrors of the war, a declaration of peace emerged.
Imagine waking up on a Sunday morning, relaxed and ready to start a day full of family and fun. For the students of Long Valley, one Sunday morning transported them and their families to Hiroshima, Japan, where volunteers awaited the opportunity to share their stories.
Although it was 8 a.m. in Long Valley, it was 9 p.m. in Japan. Each volunteer shared their knowledge of the many memorials in Hiroshima. The memorials were dedicated to those who lost their lives when the U.S. detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, and three days later Nagasaki, ultimately ending the war with Japan.
Students were amazed to see the Sadako Sasaki Children’s Peace Memorial up close and personal. Sadako Sasaki, who was two years old in 1945, was severely irradiated but initially survived the atomic bomb blast. In 1954, however she developed leukemia as a result of the radiation. After her diagnosis, she set a goal for herself to fold 1,000 paper cranes—an accomplishment she achieved prior to her death in 1955. Her story is told in Eleanor Coerr’s novel, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.
At the virtual tour of the Sadako Sasaki memorial, students learn about the now 10 million paper cranes that are housed there. Seeing these memorials through the lens of a Hiroshima resident brought a perspective about the war that could not be learned within the pages of a history text. Each student was afforded a vision of history, not one from an American textbook, but from the voices of those who live or have lived with those who experienced this unforgettable tragedy.
Our final virtual experience entailed the folding of paper cranes. Prior to this endeavor, Sagon-Taeza sent folded paper cranes with a message of peace written in Japanese from the Sadako museum and other paper cranes with a message written in Hawaiian and from Hawaii. District staff sent these to their students, who cherished these symbols of peace and eagerly worked to create their own cranes with their own handwritten messages. Once folded, each crane was sent across the ocean to the Sadako Sasaki Children’s Peace Memorial. Each of our students had now become a part of a living history.
As a culminating activity, students designed their own peace project as a reflection all that they had learned. Some wrote traditional Japanese haikus, while others folded giant paper cranes marked with quotes from the many virtual experiences and heartfelt messages learned. These messages were shared with families and the community alike. Dinner tables were abuzz with conversations about history and the forging of peace. Characters came alive as the students connected with the historical events in each of the novels read. Classrooms were electrified with knowledge of our past and their future.
Each and every fifth grade student in Long Valley learned that a classroom extends beyond the walls and that the vast oceans are not what separate us. Instead, they unite each and every individual. Teaching of history through the human lens has provided unforgettable experiences for these students while demonstrating that learning can occur on unique platforms.
Through these virtual platforms students, parents and educators alike have had windows opened to the world. Often, it is through these platforms that relationships are created that will ensure peace lasts a lifetime.
Betty Paolella is a fifth grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Benedict A. Cucinella Elementary School in Washington Township, Morris County. In that role, she created the districtwide program she describes in this article. Paolella previously served the district as a middle school literacy coach. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.