Veterans Day is a teachable moment for many US schools

Schools are mostly finding noncontroversial ways to bring Veterans Day into the classroom. For some students, this is the first time they've ever met a vet.

Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman/AP
A retired soldier participates in the Veteran's Day Parade, Wednesday, in Austin, Texas.

With the US in two ongoing conflicts and the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, Veterans Day has taken on a new meaning for many Americans – and a renewed prominence in schools.

Around the country, many schools are using the day as an opportunity not only to honor veterans, but also to help students better understand current events and the military.

In West Virginia, thirteen schools are participating in "Take a Veteran to School Day," where veterans from conflicts ranging from World War II to Iraq come in for roundtable discussions.

For the first time in three decades, South Dakota's Meade School District chose not to give students a holiday on Veterans Day in order to have a more meaningful observance. At one high school in the district, an all-school assembly Wednesday is being followed by small group discussions with past and present service members.

An Alabama high school class is creating a "living history" documentary, interviewing and recording local veterans.

"I think you can do more in school [to commemorate Veterans Day], and taking the day off is almost a cop-out. They go to the malls," says Ronald Stewart, headmaster at York Prep in Manhattan, explaining why he chooses, like the Meade School District, to hold classes on Veterans Day.

At York Prep, students stand for the traditional moment of silence at 11 a.m. on Veterans Day – something Mr. Stewart guesses they would not do if it had the day off.

Still, Stewart says that even with the current conflicts, it can be a challenge to bring Veterans Day immediacy to students who are unlikely to know anyone who serves.

"For this group, there is a disconnect with the military," he says. "The news of the latest disasters from the front takes a small place in their attention span."

That's less of a challenge for schools where many students' family members are currently deployed, and the conflicts – and the service members who fight in them – are more of a reality.

The Boeckman Creek School in Wilsonville, Ore., invited Mark Parrish to give a presentation to students.

Mr. Parrish, home on leave from a year-long deployment in Iraq with the Oregon National Guard, has three sons at the school, and he answered students' questions about what it's like being deployed, how he communicates with his family – very different now than when he served in the first Gulf War – and what he's learned from his service.

"My youngest son, born in 2003, has never known America not at war," says Parrish, noting that he talked with several students after his presentation who also have parents who are in Iraq or have recently come home. "I think they're aware of it, and it was nice to see the school put this kind of effort into it."

For the most part, schools and classrooms are finding noncontroversial ways to bring Veterans Day into the classroom, using it as a way to honor soldiers' service rather than look critically at current wars or the more troubled side of armed service on display in the Fort Hood shootings.

How it's celebrated can vary a lot depending on how connected a school is to the military.

"For some communities and some families, [Veterans Day] has great immediacy, and for some it's a very distant issue," says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

While most educators might avoid controversy, this could be a good opportunity for educators to talk about the tough issues surrounding military engagement, he says.

Simply having conversations and reaching out to veterans, say students and educators, can go a long way toward helping students understand what servicemen and women go through.

In the roundtable discussion he helped organize at Hurricane High School in Hurricane, W.Va., senior Cody Steffick says some of the most illuminating comments came when the six veterans, from World War II through Iraq, discussed what it's like to have to kill.

"I can't imagine being put in that position," says Cody, who is a member of the American Legion's Boys State program in West Virginia and student body president. "When you're in a war, you have to go against everything that society tells you."

See also:

Veterans Day highlights new efforts to help homeless vets


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