Going into the trenches with sixth-graders to study World War I at Moores Mill


Mark McCarter | mmccarter@al.comBy Mark McCarter | mmccarter@al.com
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on April 16, 2015

I take a full shot straight to the chest. I’m a goner. I go face down, limp as a banquet-hall salad.

Some would say all I did was get hit with a wadded up ball of newspaper and sprawl out on a tile classroom floor.

They’d be wrong. This was enemy ammunition that got me, when I dared go to the end of a dank, rat-infested, noisy, scary, zig-zagged trench carved in the French countryside in 1917.

The temptation and the giddiness of this sixth-grade activity at Moores Mill Intermediate School would be, as teacher Jennifer Sticker acknowledges, “to tell everybody you were in a paper-wad fight. That’s not it. This is a trench-warfare simulation.”

Good enough for me.

Except that I don’t make it to the end of the battle.

The sixth-graders are studying World War I. When the teacher greets you wearing a doughboy hat and camo, as Sticker does, you know you’re in for an experience. She and Pam Dean have adjacent classrooms, teaching the same unit on World War I, as borrowed from a teacher at Hampton Cove.

Through a Teaching American History grant through the Madison County schools, Sticker and Dean have been able to travel to key places and acquire extra material. (“Think any of your readers want to donate some tablets?” Sticker asks hopefully.)

Dean even went to National World War I museum in Kansas City “and it was powerful,” particularly the entrance where visitors walk across a glass floor under which a field of red poppies, the symbol of remembrance of World War I, is growing. Says Dean, “It’s a moment to really stop and reflect.”

“The whole program is about hands-on learning, primary sources, making history come to life,” Sticker says.

“It’s changed my teaching,” Dean says. “It’s going to be as hands-on as you possibly can be. Make it come to life. Make it relevant.”

“They memorize for a test and forget it the rest of their lives,” Sticker says. “Maybe this is something they can take with them.”

Both rooms have desks jammed together in long, straight rows. Seemingly acres of black plastic sheeting cover the desks and the floors. Sticker has been especially resourceful, begging the black plastic from a construction site at her church.  Serpentine loops of aluminum foil dangle like tinsel across stretches of twine, simulating barbed wire.

Sticker has battle sounds emanating from a speaker and the din spills over us as she gives us instructions in the hallway. Each of us gets on all fours as we enter the room, the better to escape detection. She orders the boys to one trench, the girls in another and begins to share some lessons about the harsh existence of trench warfare.

That leads to a phenomenon about which sociologists and doctoral students write millions of words:

As Sticker pauses to fiddle with a stubborn computer, nearly all the boys eventually pop up like creatures in a Whack-a-Mole game and pretend to fire guns or heave bombs toward the girls’ trench.

“Hey girls,” cries one. “You can have a grenade.”

Meanwhile, nary a girl rises from their trench to fire a shot.

Sticker shows clips from the Brad Pitt movie, “Legends of the Fall” and a Charlie Chaplin short about life in the trenches. That’s not simply for entertainment purposes.  Sticker makes the point between hyperbole and fact, “just to tie in a little bit of language.”

A slide presentation illustrates how elaborate trenches could be, and discusses the various unsavory perils, like rats and trench foot, not to mention enemy weapons.

In the next room, Dean plays scenes from “Flyboys,” about the World War I fighter pilots in the air space above the trenches.

There is the subtle lesson of creativity and grammar, as well. Each of the students is assigned to write a “letter back home,” taking on the role of a soldier trying to express the difficulties yet also minimizing worry.

The class climaxes with the intensity of trench warfare simulation. We’re divided into two teams, the eight boys and 10 girls mixed this time. We’re sent to the two most distant trenches, with two sitting empty in no man’s land. We fire away.

It’s fun, it’s chaotic and noisy. And, no, it can never simulate the horrors of what those trenches must have been like a century ago for the soldiers on both sides of the war. But this piques the imagination more than a chapter in a book.

I never had my chance to write a letter home. But if I did, I’d probably put something in there that the best, most relevant education is in showing and doing, not just telling.

About the series: Columnist Mark McCarter goes “back to school” in this 13-week series, visiting and participating in classes from kindergarten through 12th grade, examining extraordinary educational opportunities for area students. Next week: He faces off against seventh-grade chess experts at Liberty Middle School in Madison. Reach Mark at mmccarter@al.com


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