This term I have been teaching my Year 9 History class about the ANZAC legend and the commemoration of war. I have always enjoyed teaching these topics, though this time as we neared the end of the unit, I started to feel uneasy. My students seemed to be describing things in simplistic black and white terms. While they had read and discussed differing views, and connected with New Zealand students to discuss the significance of Anzac 100 years on, I began to realise that I had not done a very good job of enabling them to see the complexities of the topic. I stewed on my failure, and then went back to the readings I had provided my students and started googling the authors’ names. I found three of them on Twitter and five email addresses, so I sent out eight invitations to Skype with my class. Five replied. Of these, two couldn’t connect with us (one of them was in Turkey). I set up three Skype calls. The first postponed and then failed to respond at the appointed time, that’s just part and parcel of dealing with busy professionals and these sorts of learning opportunities. Two did connect with us.
Dr Craig Barrett is a historian and built heritage specialist, with a PhD focusing on the return of Australian POWs. He spoke about how the legend itself hasn’t been manipulated much, but the way that war is commemorated has changed. He related how aspects of the Anzac legend were formed in the bush in the 19th century and the key aspect of mateship has been stable over time. He spoke about how the Australian tourism trickle to Gallipoli in the 1980s became a flood in the 2000s and about how Peter Weir’s 1981 Gallipoli film changed attitudes toward Anzac Day and the legend. He also spoke about the disconnect between the legend and what really happened.
The following lesson was with Professor Joan Beaumont from ANU. She explained how the legend is not a historical account of what happened in the war, it is about identity and nationalism, and it tells us what we value today. A myth is how we want to remember the past because it is about what we consider to be important. There were a number of reasons that the Anzac legend took off, both the British and Australian governments wanted more people to join up and it helped grieving families find solace in the fact that their children had died for a reason. She was critical of the recent inappropriate commercialisation of Anzac Day by Woolworths and the AFL.
(With thanks to Charlie for his notes which were used to produce the above two paragraphs).
For each Skype learning call, a student volunteer introduced the class and thanked our guest at the end, three students took notes for the rest of the class to access later, and one student researched the background of the speaker during the call. For everyone else, their job was to listen and think of good questions to ask. They were keen to know the guest’s thoughts on: commemoration, the role of the media, the glorification of Anzac, how the Anzac legend has changed over time, and whether the Anzac legend has been manipulated to suit the morals and values of contemporary Australian society. I was also delighted that they were interested in finding out about what is involved in being a professional historian.
I am amazed at the goodwill of these busy professionals to spend time with a Year 9 class, I am astounded by the learning experiences technology enables for our students today, and I am proud of my students for their great questions and their deep thinking about these topics. They will be writing about it next week and I am really interested to see what sense they are making of it all now.