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Provided by Prospect Sierra School

Connecting Across Generations

How Prospect Sierra’s World War II project leverages living history to inspire empathy in students.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

February 4, 2013

From their first day of school at Prospect Sierra, students learn that everyone’s story is important. With a school-wide commitment to storytelling that produces projects like “This P.S. Life,” it is no surprise that graduating 8th graders participate in a truly transformative learning experience: the World War II Project.

Started by former Prospect Sierra teacher Nika Skvir Maliakal and Director of 
Innovation, Partnerships, and Service Kathryn Lee, the World War II Project challenges 8th graders to interview someone who lived through World War II and write their oral history. According to Rinat Manhoff, 8th grade humanities teacher and the World War II Project coordinator, the project was conceived out of a need to make students realize that history happened to people. When history is taken out of textbook stories and told through the oral narratives of people in their community, students learn both that history matters and that hearing people’s stories is a great act of service.

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Students begin the project by conducting preliminary research to ensure they have enough background knowledge to interview their subjects. Then students are placed into groups of two or three to complete an hour-long interview with a community member who lived through World War II. The variety of perspectives captured by students is astonishing; the Prospect Sierra 8th graders have interviewed veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, individuals who lived on the home front during the war, people who saw their fathers sent to the frontlines, Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps, and Holocaust survivors as well. After students take copious notes through ongoing dialogue with veterans to create compelling oral histories, professional photographers take the subjects’ pictures. The photographs and the oral histories are published in a book, which the 8th graders present to their interview subjects at the end of the project.

The World War II Project leaves a lasting impact on both the students and the community members who participate. Manhoff describes one student who was particularly moved by the experience:

“This student was struggling; he had a lot going on with his family, and 8th grade academics were simply not the most important thing to him. Then he had the opportunity to interview an African American veteran who fought in Pearl Harbor. Meeting with this veteran literally changed everything for this student. Now the student calls the veteran every Memorial Day, Pearl Harbor Day, and Veterans Day to say hi, see how he is doing, and tell the veteran that he is thinking of him. That is priceless. He may have received poor grades in 8th grade, but his life was truly changed by the things this man did 60 years ago, and he was touched in a way that he had never been touched before.”

The World War II Project prepares Prospect Sierra’s 8th graders for their final project of their middle school careers: to interview someone who lived through American history. The students use the skills and the inspiration they gain through the World War II Project to tell other American stories, cementing their commitment to storytelling and their appreciation of history.