Stanford Teaching Festival course offers inclusive look at World War I, encourages studying history from different perspectives

A new professional development course at Stanford for middle and high school teachers highlights the importance of studying the history of the First World War in a global context.

Despite the global nature of World War I – one of the deadliest conflicts in history, involving dozens of countries and affecting hundreds of millions of lives – U.S. schools usually teach its history from the dominant perspective of the Western world.

Teachers Esther Mansdorf and Erin Wilson examine source materials at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives as part of a professional development course on teaching the history of World War I. (Image credit: Alex Shashkevich)

But even the dates of the war (1914 to 1918) can shift when examining the conflict through different perspectives.

“The Western view of the war is that it ended in 1918 when the armistice was signed,” said Jovana Knežević, associate director at Stanford’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, who teaches a seminar on the First World War in Eastern Europe and Russia. “But in the East, the fighting didn’t stop until as late as 1923.”

With those words, Knežević kicked off First World War in a Global Context, a new five-day professional development course designed for middle and high school teachers – some of whom traveled across the world earlier this month for a week of learning at Stanford.

“World War I gets overshadowed by the Second World War,” Knežević said. “Our aim was to underscore the importance of this war in shaping the 20th century and to share perspectives that people wouldn’t typically find in their textbooks.”

The class was one of numerous professional learning courses offered as part of the Stanford Teaching Festival, an annual summer event organized by the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET) at the university’s Graduate School of Education. Courses cater to secondary teachers in the humanities and social sciences, as well as in science, technology, engineering and math.

Knežević designed the World War I course together with Nicole Lusiani Elliott, a professional development associate at CSET, and through a collaboration with Stanford Global Studies. It was partially funded through a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant.

Interconnectedness and agency

Considering the war from a global perspective is important because it allows students to think about the interconnectedness and agency of different parts of the world, historian Robert Crews underscored in his presentation.

In addition, the participants spent part of a day examining WWI archival materials at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives.

After each lecture, teachers discussed how they could implement the newly learned materials and resources into their lesson plans. Conveying different perspectives on the war can be a difficult task, Knežević said.

“How do you put all of these perspectives on an equal footing?” she said. “It is a challenge pedagogically.”

One suggestion the class discussed was to view the war through the lens of soldiers on the war’s different fronts, Knežević said.

“There isn’t just one soldier experience,” she said. “In the West, the prevalent experience of a soldier was in the trenches. In the East, many soldiers were prisoners of war, and that’s a different experience. Then there were the African colonial soldiers, who hoped to gain citizenship rights for their sacrifices in the war.”

As teachers thanked program organizers on the program’s final day, some called their experience “inspiring.”

Kevin Conlon works on an exercise with Alice Leung, right, as the teachers practice a pedagogical method to bring back to use with their students. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Karna Cruz, who has taught high school history for 12 years in Concord, California, said she liked the combination of interesting lectures as well as discussions about pedagogical tools.

“It was amazing,” Cruz said. “Not only have we been given so much useful content to take back to our classrooms, but we also tackled how to incorporate those materials right away in our teaching. And that’s huge.”

The biggest highlight for Cruz and other teachers, however, was the hours spent at the Hoover.

“The archives were truly incredible,” said Calvin Foo, who teaches history as part of his English class at St. Stephen’s College in Stanley, Hong Kong, a site Japanese forces used as an internment camp during World War II. “Because of our school’s rich history, we try to use historical materials as much as possible when teaching our kids, and it’s been a great opportunity to gain all of these additional resources through this class.”

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419, ashashkevich@stanford.edu