Taking the ‘duh’ out of D-Day
Now Graven’s SAIL students planning ‘07 trip to Normandy

       Connie Graven's seventh-grade SAIL class at West Middle School studied D-Day during the past school year. It was an optional topic - allowed under the somewhat flexible curricula for gifted-students - and it came at their request.
       She liked the idea because her father had fought at D-Day and because it's a key event in recent American history. But she thought it was important for another key reason: Most of her students were ignorant of the significance of the Allied attack from the sea at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.
       “At the beginning of the year, I asked the class, what do you want to learn that we don't teach you, and one of the things they wanted to know about was D-Day,” Graven explained. “They said, 'We hear about it all the time but we don't know what it is.' They knew about Hitler and the Holocaust, but the whole concept of the war was kind of foreign to them.”
       The students got smarter about D-Day, and World War II in general, after spending four months this spring studying the subject with the help of Graven and Major Chris Rein, who teaches history to cadets at the Air Force Academy. Divvying up tasks, the roughly 20-student class created a 49-square-foot relief map of the D- Day beach heads, interviewed veterans (including members of the French Resistance), filmed a 26-minute video in which student actors in rented uniforms portrayed vets, and made D-Day presentations at several area elementary schools.
       The project did not end with the school year. The class, going into eighth grade, will be polishing up their video and other presentation aspects next school year, according to Graven. Then, from March 24 to April 3, 2007, most of the students are planning a trip with their teacher to Normandy itself.
       Footing that cumulative $22,000 bill may be the hardest part of the project for Graven, her students and their parents. A fund-raising effort will get started this summer. Adding to the degree of difficulty, the fund-raisers cannot advertise using the words “District 11” or “West Middle School” because it's not an official school or district trip, Graven noted.
       SAIL is a District 11 program at West for middle-schoolers who have been identified through testing as gifted and talented. The program name is an acronym for Student-Centered Aca-demic Interdisciplinary Lab.
       Two of Graven's students - Alex Killian, a movie-making hobbyist, and Alex Ballard - combined to create the video, which they titled “Operation D-Day.”
       “I meant to teach (in making the video), but I learned a whole lot I didn't know before,” Killian recalled.
       Ballard was moved by his encounters with the veterans in the video process. It's rewarding to “pass down” some of their stories, he said, because “a lot of them are dying.”
       During the four months, Major Rein would come out from the Academy on his lunch break to teach about D-Day and help the students create the map. “I was extremely impressed with the students,” he said. As a result of the project, “they may even have a greater understanding (of D-Day and WWII) than some of my cadets do.”
       The 7-by-7-foot map identifies fixed locations and positions miniature ships and troops where they actually were during the attack. Its creation started from an overhead image that Rein projected on a large cardboard base set vertically against a wall. The students used the image to trace the main topographical elements. “It was kind of tough,” Rein said. “We had to go back afterward and re-route a few creeks and rivers. But they did a good job.”
       The map was made primarily of newspaper and a type of strip plaster that Rein has previously used in settings for model trains. In purchasing the plaster supplies, “Connie bought out two whole Hobby Lobbies,” Rein laughed.
       Graven's father, Alvin Drake, was a Navy machinist's mate during D-Day. He was assigned to an LST that was transporting tanks to the beaches. Asked what he's told her about the battle, she said, “Not too much. When I've asked him, he's said he was so focused on what he was doing, he didn't have time to be scared.”
       Bethany Bruno, who worked with Hannah Shelton and Allie Ives to create the scrapbook for the project, was moved by learning about veterans' experiences at D- Day. “Some are quite funny, and some are heartbreaking,” she said.
       Shelton thinks that learning about D-Day can prove useful in preventing future wars. “Other generations can learn from it,” Ives added.
       Rein thinks the students will have an even more profound understanding of D-Day when they go to Normandy. Visiting the beaches where the Allied soldiers landed will allow them to look up at the cliffs above the beaches and think, “ 'Oh wow, imagine people shooting back at you,' ” he said.

Westside Pioneer article