WASHINGTON – Betsie Nielson said she just stared at the ascending black wall in amazement.
She had seen the models,knew the dimensions and had seen it on television. Yet she was shocked at how big the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was and how small each name etched on it seemed.
“I thought,’How in the world can I get this across to the students?’” said the 34-year-old high school English teacher from Dove Creek,Colo.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund brought Nielson and 83 other high school teachers from around the country here last week for a four-day lesson and workshop in an attempt to help them better educate students about the Vietnam War.
“We're finding ways to make Vietnam interesting to youngsters,” said Jan C. Scruggs,founder and president of the fund,which was created in the late 1970s to help bring about a Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The teachers heard from veterans,journalists,academics and politicians with expertise about Vietnam.
“I can't presume to tell you how to deal with high school kids,” said Stanley Karnow,a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author of “Vietnam: A History,” at a luncheon. “Vietnam was a tragedy,an absolute tragedy,and I don't know how you're going to tell it any other way.”
Karnow,who was a reporter in Vietnam in 1959 when the first American soldiers died,advised the teachers to teach the war in the context of the time and give the viewpoint of both sides of the war.
“Two to three million Vietnamese were also killed,” Karnow said. “Let's not forget that.”
Nielson teaches Vietnam through literature in her senior composition class as part of a semester program on the 1960s she and a colleague developed.
“I spent more time this year on Vietnam because we were in Iraq,” Nielson said.
Scruggs said the workshop encourages teachers to become more active in bringing Vietnam veterans into the classroom to speak to students.
“Americans in the proper sense of the word are ignorant of the Vietnam War,” said Richard Abell,a 59-year-old judge for the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and a Vietnam veteran.
Abell was one of several veterans who attended the conference to conduct informal sessions about their experiences in Vietnam with teachers.
Abell,who said he was shot several times in Vietnam in 1970,said a lack of knowledge about the war exists because many Vietnam veterans are unwilling to talk about it or are never asked to do so.
Gilbert Apps,a teacher at Socorro High School in Socorro,N.M.,said teaching Vietnam has become more difficult because many students today have parents who do not remember the era.
Scruggs said the program is designed so teachers who come to Washington can use the knowledge they obtain to help their colleagues teach about Vietnam. The VVMF created a curriculum guide six years ago and distributes it to high schools throughout the country.
In addition to being a point of reference for social studies teachers in her district,Nielson said she is going to propose a Vietnam literature program to the Colorado Language Arts Society at next year's conference.
“I've never taught English without teaching history,” Nielson said. “They go together.”
Karnow said the best way students can learn about Vietnam is to go there. Nielson said she hopes her school,Dolores County High School,will start a program for students to come to Washington,D.C.,instead of a more-frivolous senior trip.
“I'd much rather bring the kids here than go see Mickey Mouse,” Nielson said.
This is the second year the VVMF has brought teachers to Washington. Scruggs said the cost was about $150,000 and the money came from donations from veterans,corporations and other supporters. The teachers make several trips to the memorial and make a tribute for a deceased soldier from their region to leave at the wall.
“We want to continue to expand it every year,” Scruggs said.