Above: Veteran Jerry Martin talking to students about the disparities he noticed between his experience in the military and how it is portrayed in their assigned reading The Things They Carried.
How veterans and students are connecting to make a change
Story and Photos by Ashley Donohoe, except where noted, with additional reporting by Kailee Dishmon, Rebecca Cutsinger, Emma Swain, Ellen Muldowney, and Carly Estrella
During the school year, most Battlefield English students are stuck in the same routine of quizzes, testing, and studying. However, in Mrs. Provenzano’s eleventh grade English classes, students took a break from the norm to partake in project-based learning. After reading the novel The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a book detailing the lives of army members and the hardships they endure during combat, the class was split up into groups and given the task to find a way to help veterans in the area. The students set to work, and as the project progressed, Mrs. Provenzano invited a number of local veterans to speak to the students, offering them advice on their projects and sharing stories of their time spent in the military.
Sabrina Webb, a former military police officer that was deployed in Afghanistan, shared her experience saying, “It’s important for students to learn what the military really does, not just what’s on the news: day-to-day life, the sacrifices, and the benefits.” By having each individual veteran elaborate on their experiences and provide students with insight on their lives, groups were able to develop their projects. Webb continued, “I think it’s important to explain how things are in the military to humanize the military… the more we understand about something, the more empathy we have and the more compassion we have towards each other.” Connecting with Mrs. Provenzano’s classes on a deeper level revealed the respect the kids hold for the veterans. And this respect deepened a feeling of responsibility to repay them for their service.
Always actively searching for the best new learning techniques, Mrs. Provenzano decided to implement project-based learning for this book assignment because it “allows students to engage in real-world problem-solving. Instead of taking a test or memorizing information, students are actively engaged in critical thinking skills while learning how to manage and work within a group.” She wants students to understand the responsibilities that they must undertake to complete the project, while simultaneously learning how to work with a team and be flexible with decision making. Students also face forms of rejection and failure throughout their projects, so they learn how to overcome these challenges to meet the end goal.
Junior Tristan Kamel said, “My group is holding a non-profit charity 5k to help support the Wounded Warriors. We are going down to local businesses and seeing if anyone wants to make donations or be a sponsor.” Targeting the large number of athletes in the area, this group aspires to bring awareness to veterans’ issues and raise money to solve them. Similar to the Alvey-Gravely 5k run, Kamel and his group hope that their event will draw a larger audience of high-schoolers and not just the younger students at Alvey and Gravely.
Another group, represented by Jessica Lee, is focused on veterans’ mental health. Said Lee, “My group has been going around to health facilities, like spas and physical therapy practices, to inquire about obtaining a discount for those veterans with PTSD or other injuries.” By engaging with businesses in the area to provide benefits for the veterans, it allows common citizens to demonstrate respect for the sacrifices veterans have made for the betterment of our country. The mental health challenges, especially PTSD, should not be taken lightly, so Lee hopes that by alerting businesses to the prevalence of this ailment in veterans’ lives, they will be willing to combat this hardship together.
Lastly, a group lead by student Alyse Zilleruelo, is working to assist veterans with daily events. She says, “we’re making a website for veterans to use when they come home or retire.” The site provides resources for veterans looking to travel, find recipes for meals, explore restaurants in the area, and offers links to hotlines for various mental health issues they may be facing. Zillereuelo elaborates, “we’re trying to include different places that give out free meals for veterans.” After discussing their goal with one particular veteran, Tom Webb, they were able to take this part of their website a step further.
Tom Webb, Sabrina’s husband, was an infantry officer who saw combat in Afghanistan. Webb believes the conversations he engaged in with the students enlightened them as to the real inner-workings of the military, and gave the group a unique perspective they would not otherwise have been exposed to.
Vietnam veteran Jerry Martin believes it is the responsibility of his generation to spread this perspective to today’s youth. As Martin conversed with the students, he shared a few critiques of certain aspects in The Things They Carried, such as the book’s portrayal of drug use when in combat. Martin explained how those situations are “life and death,” and regardless of pain, soldiers have to persevere with optimal cognitive function. He even allowed the students an artistic glimpse into the world of combat, reading his poem titled Shadows from the Wall.
Unbeknownst to most of Battlefield, Mrs. Provenzano’s eleventh grade English class has been working hard to bring positive change to the community, and specifically to the lives of our local veterans. With the addition of the veterans’ unique insight and dedication to assisting these students, each group in the class can demonstrate gratitude to those who have made countless sacrifices for America’s prosperity and strive to repay them.