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Dick Winters, oral history and personal primary sources.

Dick Winters passed away in early January. And unless you’re a huge World War II history buff, that probably doesn’t mean much.

For those of you who aren’t huge World War II history buffs, Major Richard “Dick” Winters was a retired paratrooper who served as a captain in Easy Company, 506th Parachute Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and made famous as part of Stephen Ambrose’s 1992 best-selling book Band of Brothers and Tom Hank’s 2001 HBO mini-series of the same name.

And if you’ve had a chance to read the book or watch the video (or any of the other books and materials that have been published since 2001), you know Winters was famous for a reason. He was brave, resourceful, smart, protected the men in his care and, while he hated the idea of war, he fought to end it as quickly as possible.

When I heard about Winters death back in January, I ordered up the entire HBO series on NetFlix, re-read Ambrose’s book, dug out Winters own account and read through several other books by men who served with Winters. Yes . . . I’m a huge World War II buff.

But here’s the point.

None of these stories would have been known, we wouldn’t be able to learn from them, if someone wouldn’t have written them down. In the case of Easy Company, that someone was Stephen Ambrose.

What stories are we asking our students to write down? What artifacts, photos and documents are they talking about?

About a year ago, I threw up a quick post that talked about what I called Personal Primary Sources. I had run across some old, boxed up photos and documents from the time my parents spent in the Belgian Congo. We spread those out during a recent family reunion and spent hours with my mom reliving those events.

We need to do the same sort of thing with our kids. I wrote this a year ago:

I think that sometimes we forget how powerful primary sources can be.

Especially . . . especially those that have a personal and emotional connection to our students. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using primary documents that came with your textbook, or you got from the National Archives or even those that show up in some of those cheesy jackdaw collections.

But think about how powerful history becomes when it’s studied with documents generated by students themselves.

That’s the “so what.”

The documents posted here mean something to me. I know the people in the picture. I’ve asked my dad about the giant snake. There’s already an emotional connection built-in . . . what I need is a teacher to help me see the connection to a bigger world, to help me ask bigger questions.

Oral history is an easy, quick way to start the process. Kids can interview parents, grandparents, friends of grandparents, museum curators . . . heck, have ’em practice on each other. But when kids are the ones doing the collecting, the questioning, the archiving, that’s also when they’re learning.

Tomorrow? What it looks like in practice.

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