By Scott Saposnik, Department Chair of Social Sciences
The wooden gym floor is covered with protective plastic tarps, transforming it into an ocean of various shades of blue. As students shuffle-in to take their exams, the ground crinkles and sighs in protest to the many-sneakered stampede. Students have assisted the administration in preparing the room for this day, carrying the sleigh desks into the gym the day before, during an event we like to call manifest 'deskiny'. Now, the pencils are sharpened, the blank white-lined essay paper is prepared, and the Scantron© squares await their Number 2 (and Number 2 only) fill-in marks.
Students take their seats and arrange their desks, settling-in for the two-hour testing that is about to begin. Some have brought books with them in anticipation of finishing early—smart move. The alternative is the fate of looking around the gym and reading off the walls the various names of the All-Star and All-State Champions that have graced Canterbury’s courts and fields over the years, and while that’s definitely interesting, it certainly isn’t time-consuming. And yet, as one of the proctors of today’s exams, that’s exactly what I and my fellow exam proctors are about to do-- stroll around, address various questions that may arise, maintain the silence (other than the cacophony of our crinkly feet on the plastic floors), but mostly: casually familiarize ourselves with our successful student-athletes. Oh, this is cool: a list of former students who have gone on to achieve athletic success at the collegiate level. “Congratulations, Stephanie Perkins in 1996,” I think to myself as I make another circuit around the test-takers.
There are many classes represented here this morning: Ancient Greece. AP Psychology. American Government. 8th Grade U.S. History, and, for the very first time, World War II. It is a course the Canterbury students asked me to create. As the Social Science Department Chair, I was thrilled to be able to provide them with this opportunity. It is not often an educator gets a chance to develop a brand-new course, especially not one that the students themselves requested. So, today is special. It is the culmination of that initial request.
When shaping the class, I decided quickly that I wanted it to reflect a college colloquium-like experience, but tailored to a high school audience. With that in mind, I decided on a reading list that would be informative, a bit challenging (but not too challenging), and perhaps most importantly: the readings had to personalize the war. Indeed, we must go beyond the staggering numbers that make up a standard study of World War II.
Twenty million casualties of the Soviet Union. Six million Jews of the Holocaust. These numbers are too big to comprehend and become simply sad and distant statistics. In order to dive deeper into the history and create an experience of understanding and empathy, students were assigned the following books: Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, David Benioff’s City of Thieves, and Antony Beevor’s D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. Each week, students are assigned readings from these books, and they must write a reflection based upon a prompt I provide. The historical framework—the names, the dates, the details—I also provide those in lecture form during class, but for this new course, I wanted students to be able to go further than a textbook understanding of the war, and, hopefully, gain a deeper human understanding of what World War II did to us as a civilization and the effects it continues to have on all of our lives globally.
In addition to the multiple-choice, short answer, and essay questions I wrote for Canterbury’s first World War II exam, I also added this optional response question:
What did you like best about this new course? What surprised you? What bored you? What would you recommend to future students who take this class? Thank you so much for being a part of this inaugural semester of World War II!”
Here are some student responses:
Adam G: I took this class because I was interested in the topic of WWII, and the class has taught me all I could have wanted to know. Now that the class is over, I will take with me the knowledge of all the events that happened in the world’s greatest war.
Cristian B: I love history, but most of all I love the characters and peoples' stories—learning about what they felt and what happened [to them] because now I know history better. It gave me a better comprehension of the world and what happened and why now I’m here.
Mia L: I think WWII is a great class and all kids should take it. I had a great interest in WWII, and I learned a lot.
Aubrey M: I love history…a deep understanding of WWII at such a young age is impressive and valuable. I loved the class.
Lilly K: I really enjoyed this new course, from the readings, lessons, and overall knowledge I have about this major part of history. I vaguely knew the details of the Holocaust and WWII, but just learning about the horrors…and battles, especially the more personal insight on the statistics really shocked me. I was excited to start the class because my great-grandpa fought side-by-side with George H.W. Bush in Squadron VT-51, and the dozens of exciting stories he told me throughout my life urged me to want to learn even more. It definitely was what I was hoping it would be.
“You now have thirty minutes remaining!”
Most test-takers are now finished and daydreaming about their impending vacations or are furrowing their brows in full-concentration mode. This is the time of hurried, furious erasing at one desk, contrasted by slight student snoozing at another. Soon, these students will be turning in their exams, we teachers will grade them and enter the scores into Schoology, and the holidays will begin. However, it will not necessarily be the end of our World War II course together. In addition to the new course, I am also sponsoring a World War II-themed field trip during the first week of June. The trip will take us to London, Paris, and Normandy to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Much like creating and offering the class itself, I am thrilled that we, here at Canterbury, are able to offer this once-in-a-lifetime experience, as well.
There is still time to sign up! If you are interested, please visit explorica.com/Saposnik-5861.
“Pencils down. See you in Normandy!”
Scott Saposnik teaches World War II and is the Department Chair of Social Sciences.
"The reason I decided to petition for a WWII class was that until this class every single history class I have taken just seemed to blip over contemporary history like the World Wars and the Cold War if they covered them at all. When I came up with the idea, I started by asking people if they would be interested in a World War 2 class. When I got mostly positive responses, I contacted Mr. Saposnik to see what I should do next, which is how I got the idea for the petition that was circulated around the school. The responses were so overwhelming that the course immediately filled up for the first semester and a second-semester course had to be added.
The course uses a lot of different media types, and Mr. Saposnik is an incredible and highly dedicated teacher. He is very good at illustrating what it was like to be alive during WWII on both sides of the war. The course is highly informative and some of the class has been devoted to how the events of WWII have affected life today. For example, a lot of modern-day movies, games, and books contain references to Nazi Germany. The only problem I have with the course is that it’s a one-semester course instead of a full year. If you are interested in contemporary history, then I highly recommend this course."
- Jack C., grade 9