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'The Greatest Generation'

Rocky Run Middle School students welcome World War II veterans and civilians.

Michael Ingrisano, a radio operator who took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, was recently honored by the French government for his role in World War II. In a presentation in France, the French government awarded Ingrisano a Medal of Honor for his services, and asked him to stay on for a few days. He declined, telling the officials that he had to get home to the kids at Rocky Run Middle School.

On Wednesday, June 9, Rocky Run Middle School seventh-graders welcomed Ingrisano and other members of the "Greatest Generation" to their school. The students took turns interviewing more than 30 World War II veterans as well as civilians who had their lives forever altered when the war broke out.

"Just amazing. Mind boggling," said Donna Garrity when asked what she thought of the day. Garrity was one of the seventh-grade history teachers responsible for organizing the event. "Just to look out over the whole media center and see kids so engrossed in what their person was saying — you could see them leaning in and listening. This was such a reward," she said.

Seventh-grade history teacher Jamie Sawatzky came up with the idea of having veterans speak in his classroom two years ago after reading about an oral history project on the internet. Inspired by the opportunity of video-taping veterans and sending the tapes to the National Archives, Sawatzky brought in two veterans to speak to his class.

"It’s a desperate time to interview these guys. They’re not spring chickens," said Sawatzky.

He was impressed that his students asked good questions and decided to reenact the event last year. By seeking out the grandparents, friends, and neighbors of his students, Sawatzky collected 15 to 16 veterans to speak. Some of the other history teachers at Rocky Run noticed what Sawatzky was doing, and asked to participate in this year’s event. They were jealous, he said jokingly.

Garrity, one of the teachers who partnered with Sawatzky, knew of a course taught at George Mason University that brought in veterans to talk to retirees. By combining veterans from the GMU course with veterans who had previously spoken in Sawatzky’s classes, the teachers were able to round up more than 30 speakers this year.

AT THE END of this year’s event, more than 1,000 tickets had been turned into the teachers, each ticket signifying a student interviewing a veteran.

"The veterans wanted to tell their stories, and the kids picked that right up," said Garrity. "Many of the students said the day was something they would never forget, she added.

To prepare the students for the interviews, the teachers gave each student an information sheet about the person or persons they were to interview. They presented general information about where their veterans had been and what battles they taken part in, and gave just small glimpses of their lives. The students were then tasked with the responsibility of looking up these events so they could ask intelligent questions.

After the interviews, the students spent two days preparing group presentations. Before presenting, the students performed additional research, learning about the various medals some of their veterans had won, and why they were awarded.

"The reports we got were just amazing," said Garrity. "Each student thought that the person they interviewed was the absolute best." According to Garrity, some of the students, in their reports, wrote that they felt insignificant because they weren’t making the contributions that the veterans had made. "The students truly appreciated the sacrifices these people had made," she said.

Days after the presentations, the teachers received letter and e-mails from the veterans thanking them for letting them share their stories. The veterans also commented on the quality of the students' questions, and the behavior of the students. "Kids that age get a bad wrap," said Garrity. "This was an opportunity to see kids in an entirely different light."

"These adolescents are the last generation to interview the greatest generation," said Sawatzky.