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Student interviews connect history with real people


It is about who you know after all. Or to whom you can be introduced. And what you can learn from them makes teacher Tad VandenBrink feel like he’s making new historians out of his students,

For the fifth year, those in VandenBrink’s U.S. History class got a chance to see how close they could get to someone who lived through and was uniquely affected by key events in the country.

Tom Loos’ mother had a friend who knows Deborah Jones, the niece of African-American leader Malcolm X.

Megan Tinerella interviewed a World War II Navy veteran for insight on how American lives were changed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“That was why he enlisted,” said Megan of 95-year-old Don Eaton, her boyfriend’s grandfather.

Luke Socie interviewed his great-uncle, who was an FBI hostage negotiator during the famous 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, and at the Branch Davidian compound in 1993 in Waco, Texas.

“I asked him if he had any anecdotes to share and his answer was essentially, ‘Read my book,’” Luke said of Jim Botting, whose “Bullets Bombs and Fast Talk” was published in 2008.

Megan Tinerella interviewed a World War II Navy veteran

Remarkable Personal Stories  

The interviews came out of a research paper students were assigned, to pick a topic from the 20th or 21st centuries that had a major impact on the country.

Besides history, Vandenbrink said the lesson teaches life skills, from setting up and scheduling an interview, to listening to someone speak and avoiding the temptation to jump in. Also academic skills, such as critical thinking and how to fuse research with an interview to create a narrative of a historical event, and the impacts that event had on those involved.

Luke Socie interviewed his great-uncle, an FBI hostage negotiator

VandenBrink said he’s been amazed by the people students have been connected with to interview: from those who witnessed the 1967 Detroit race riots, to someone who grew up during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, to families in the Netherlands who hid Jews during WWII.

“It’s been awesome,” said VandenBrink, who recently was named Outstanding Teacher of American History by the Grand Rapids-based Sophie de Marsac Campau Chapter of the national Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as by the state chapter. He is a contender for the national award.

“I share with students that I never had an opportunity to really have a conversation with either of my grandfathers about their World War II experiences, or life experiences in general. I was too young or wasn’t too interested,” VandenBrink said. “What this assignment gives the students the opportunity to do is to have that conversation … and in recording it have a possible family history artifact.

“I also love this assignment because it allows students to take on the role of being a historian,” he added. “History is all about oral history, and how individual stories are pieced together to make the historical narrative we study. In doing this assignment, students have the opportunity to do that themselves.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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