From Humble Beginnings: KCS European Battlefield Trip

Today we held our first European Battlefield club for our students who will be attending our school’s trip to the Canadian battlefields in France, Belgium and England next March.  In preparation for the trip, student participants in both grades 7 and 8 attend a battlefield club bi-weekly to help them to understand some of what they will see when they arrive in Europe for their 10 day trip.  My son, who attends grade 9 at a high school in Oakville, will be going on this trip with me in March (my daughter attended the last trip and my Dad the very first one).  Like many of us do before we visit a place for the first time, I am having my son watch movies, read and look through photos from previous trips in preparation for March.

I can still remember as if it was yesterday, coming back from a history conference in 2001 that was held in Montreal, where I met over 100 history teachers from across the country.  At the conference was a former history teacher (Don Bogle) from the Durham region, who was working for a school travel company in his “retirement”.  He asked if there were any teachers who were interested in organizing a battlefield trip for their school.  I joined a group of 20 teachers expressing interest.  As in most groups, the level of interest and a willingness to do the work don’t often match:  four of us ultimately organized trips for our schools for 2003. I guess it’s always easier to decide not to bring change to an organization than it is to do so.  We were the only elementary school willing to organize a trip.

I can remember coming back, sitting down with Dr. Z at the time (my predecessor as KCS Head), explaining what I wanted to do, and then after a few discussions, he agreed to let me go ahead and organize our first trip.  I assume at the time, he may have had some reservations, but the work that I had done with him in the past certainly gave him the confidence I could pull this off.  I knew the impact of travel on my own understanding of history, and although there would be a tremendous amount of learning and understanding in order to make this happen, I was confident the benefits to the participants would be proven over time.

As usual, there were many naysayers who questioned my sanity in taking grades 7 and 8 students (and their parents!) overseas.  “To Quebec is okay…to France?  You must be losing your mind!”  Others would look at me when I told them parents would also be invited to attend as we needed a certain number of people to make the trip happen.  These folks, many times teachers, would often shake their heads and back away slowly.  Planning a trip overseas just after 9/11 only added fuel to the doubters fire.  I still remember, about two weeks before we left in March 2003, we held a meeting in the library for all participants.  A father stood up and asked me in front of the group, “What do you plan to do if terrorists storm the plane?”  That moment will be forever etched in my mind.

A photo from 2003 of our first group of students, Ms. Gaudet and I at Vimy Ridge.

Needless to say, that first trip was a success that we continue to build upon.  We have taken over 250 KCS students, parents and teachers on these bi-annual trips so far.  And from those first four schools, dozens of schools across the country have followed the path our four schools began; we often run into boys from St. Andrew’s College in Europe during our trips.  The naysayers back in 2002 could not see out into the future or what was possible in student travel and the positive impact it would have on the participants.  Parents who attended the trip with their child(ren) often return to me years later to talk about the lasting impression the trip made.  My favourite story is the Dad who called me the day after Remembrance Day in 2005 – he and his daughter had been on the trip in March of that year.  He left me a simple voicemail:  “Hi Derek, this is Dave.  I now understand Remembrance Day.”

Dawn Biljetina and Jenn Macdonald have continued to build on the success of those first few trips.  An important part of their effort was the formation of a battlefield club that participants would attend prior to the trip.  Ms. B quickly realized that the participant’s experience on the trip would be so much better if they had read something, researched, watched documentaries, movies and YouTube clips on the wars, before they arrived at the ultimate classrooms:  the battlefields in Normandy, Passchendaele and Vimy.  Certainly not a novel or revolutionary idea from a teaching perspective, but one that helped enrich the trip for the participants.  It was great to sit in the battlefield club today and see the learning the students are undertaking themselves and with Ms. B in preparation for March.

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