HM - September 2019 - Teaching About World War I


Teaching about the Great War: Healthcare Providers and Personal Stories

By John Heeg

Teaching students about war is never easy. War is a form of human behavior, and it is important for students to understand the ideas that existed in specific contexts and that have led to this behavior. Traditional teaching of World War I often identifies militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism as the MAIN causes, with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand identified as the spark. There are also other ideas that teachers can help students consider when studying World War I or any war: the personal side to the war.

The aim of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri is to teach visitors about the World War I experience on a personal level. Museum curator Doran Cart’s attention to detail is evident in the exhibits throughout the museum. On the second floor of the museum, visitors will encounter uniforms and personal keepsakes by those who fought in the war. Veterans of any war can appreciate this exhibit especially when they take a look at the spent shells that were decorated by locals and sold to soldiers as souvenirs. As a veteran, I cannot help but chuckle at this. Whether it was WWI or the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, soldiers who go into combat are concerned about many things, but the two that remain the same are surviving the experience and taking home a souvenir to brag about your endeavors. It is those similarities that just go to show no matter what war you are learning about or as an educator teaching about, there will be many similarities that will remain a constant in war.

After 100 years since the Great War, there are still stories that are being researched, debated, and – more importantly – are just being told. As a teaching fellow for the World War I museum, my focus was on the work of healthcare practitioners which included the experiences of doctors, nurses, chaplains, ambulance drivers, and stretcher bearers (today’s combat medic or hospital corpsman). Many of the sacrifices that they made when caring for casualties have not been written about in great detail. Emily Mayhew covered their work in her book, Wounded: From Battlefield to Blighty, 1914-1918. Her detailed research covers the challenges that each of the practitioners encountered on the front line, and she takes the time provide the smallest of details that anyone who has ever provided aid to casualties in a combat environment can relate to.

The World War I museum also recognizes the role of healthcare providers during the war in an exhibit they have on the first floor of the museum. As a former Navy Hospital Corpsman, I can appreciate the detail that is put into this exhibit. The exhibit shows visitors the medical equipment that was used to treat casualties along with a Ford Ambulance that transported patients to the next level of care. The continued level of treatment can also be seen in this exhibit with a prosthetic arm that was donated to the museum. If you cannot make the visit to Kansas City, the database is a great resource for WWI enthusiasts and educators.

Too many social studies textbooks focus on the idea of good vs. evil when dealing with wars. As the father of an 8 year old, I can see why textbooks do this. My son often asks who the “good guy” is in any conflict, and I guess human behavior wants us to identify who is fighting to help people. This way we can cheer for the side whose intentions are to make the world a better place to live in. We can compare events from today to those that took place during WWI, and we can remind students that President John F. Kennedy once said, “The human record is littered with lessons unlearned.” We can also draw from the various sources that museums offer, and we can help students remember to focus on the personal experiences of strong minded individuals who took action to promote peace.

John Heeg earned his undergraduate degree in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in Secondary Education in 2000 from Dowling College, Oakdale, NY and holds permanent certification in Social Studies from grades 7-12. He then went on to receive his Masters Degree in 2006 from Touro College in Special Education and a Post-Graduate Certificate in School Administration from Stony Brook University in 2009. John began his teaching career at the Lenox Academy in Canarsie, Brooklyn where he taught English Language Arts and Social Studies for grades 6-8. In 2003, he began teaching 8th grade Social Studies in the Deer Park School District where he has held the role of a Mentor for first year teachers, Mentor Coordinator, and a Teacher Leader for the 8th grade Social Studies Department.