It’s May. The days are longer and warmer, the school year is winding down, and everyone’s dreaming of summer. Students at St. Anne’s-Belfield are mustering strength and focus for one final push in their classes, and Mr. Brian Gulotta’s Grade 7 students are no exception. They’re in the midst of a very special and far-reaching project, the Veterans’ History Project.
Inspired by the Library of Congress project by the same name, each spring as Memorial Day approaches, Mr. Gulotta’s students interview veterans about their lives and experiences, record their stories, and then present the interviewees with a recording of the interview.
I want to make history more human for the kids. How do you do that? By having the kids connect with people who are experiencing history. History is in the present and we are constantly experiencing it. — Brian Gulotta
Mr. Gulotta, a Coast Guard vet himself, started this project in spring of 2012. Back then, the final product was a transcript of the interview. Over the years, the project evolved to include other disciplines like computer science or English, and students grew from producing transcripts to iMovies. When the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person activities, the project continued via Zoom interviews. Although Mr. Gulotta looks forward to the day when in-person interviews and rich collaboration can resume, this year the students will use the Zoom model of the project. Here’s how it works.
Mr. Gulotta spends the school year preparing his students for this culminating project little by little, coaching their writing, their listening skills, and their inquiry skills, and increasing their knowledge of foreign and domestic wars. Then, a few weeks before Memorial Day, he lets students form small groups (2 – 3 students) or work individually if they prefer and brainstorm veterans they know who could serve as interview subjects. Mr. Gulotta finds that students know a wide variety of veterans of all ages that represent all branches of the military, duties, and experiences. Once students have identified someone they’d like to interview, they call the veteran and ask if they’d be interested. The next step is a pre-interview, during which the students ask about the war they served in, location, branch of service, rank, and type of work they performed. Students bring this preliminary information back to Mr. Gulotta’s class to prepare for the next steps.
Back in class with their pre-interviews completed, Mr. Gulotta helps students develop interview questions. The Library of Congress provides a hearty list of possible questions as a starting point, and students come up with many of their own questions, guided by Mr. Gulotta. Mr. Gulotta explains that there is an order to asking questions. It might not be effective to “start off with the big, tough questions. Sometimes with kids, knowing what not to ask is just as important as knowing what to ask. Most interviewees seem comfortable answering questions about the beginning of their service, such as boot camp.” Once students have their questions, they have an idea of the shape, structure, and time needed for the interview, so they call their veterans back and schedule the interview.
Sometimes with kids, knowing what not to ask is just as important as knowing what to ask.
Three contacts before the interview itself might at first feel excessive, but Mr. Gulotta explains that it’s about building trust. “The number one thing students need to keep in mind going into any of these conversations is the safety and comfort level of the interviewee. The student is the interviewer, and if trust is built up before the interview and the veteran can see this student really wants to know their story, then they might open up more. Students come back with amazing stories.”
After all this careful prep work, students log onto Zoom and conduct the interviews, which are usually 15 – 20 minutes but often run longer. They record the Zoom interview and save it, and then sometimes students add titles or captions. Finally, the students send the finished recording to their interviewees as a Memorial Day gift.
This complex project can be a huge undertaking for teachers because of the many moving parts to manage and the student learning curve involved. However, Mr. Gulotta continues the project because of the benefits to the students and the veterans. “I want to make history more human for the kids. How do you do that? By having the kids connect with people who are experiencing history. History is in the present and we are constantly experiencing it. For kids, sometimes history is not real unless you can bring them together with somebody who experienced it.”
In addition to making a meaningful connection with a person outside of school, students benefit from learning technology, writing and interviewing skills, etiquette, listening and conversation skills, and from working in a small group and problem solving. The veterans benefit from the connection, too, from having a young person honor their experience, and from receiving a piece of recorded history their family can cherish for many generations.
This project is here to stay in Mr. Gulotta’s room, and going forward he does hope that next year, it will be safe to return to in-person, face-to-face interviews, expanding the project into other disciplines at St. Anne’s. “Nothing compares to sitting down with somebody in person, going through the process of arranging the meeting and organizing the space and the lighting, considering the cinematography required… it involves a lot of skill, and it’s extremely personal with an authentic audience.” Each year during reflection about the project, the students report that it’s one of their favorite activities. “The kids are like, wow — that’s a great project! It’s not a great project because of anything I did. It’s a great project because of the conversations they had.”
Thank you, Mr. Gulotta, for bringing this personal and meaningful experience to our students and veterans alike!