At this time of year, we are filled with the joys of different festivals and celebrations. There’s Diwali, Halloween, and Bonfire Night all in a matter of weeks, but one of the most significant events is Remembrance Day. This is probably one of the most difficult areas to cover in schools, as it can stir up feelings and issues for children and adults that are emotional and complex. However, it is a significant event in our calendar.
Regardless of the age of the children you are working with, keeping to the facts and relating them clearly and with compassion is probably the best approach. Remembrance Sunday takes place on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, which is always the 11th November. On this day, we think about the men and women that have joined the armed forces to look after the people in this country and other people that need our help. It is their job is to defend and protect people, and we are grateful for what they do now and have done in the past. The focus is not on glorifying war or acts of aggression, and that Remembrance Day isn’t a day to celebrate; it is a day to show our respect for service people. Sometimes their job is hard and difficult, and they might get hurt. Sometimes servicemen and women are away from their families for a long time, and that is sad for them. But they are willing to do this, because it is an important job that they do.
Millions of people give money to a charity called the British Legion and buy a poppy to wear. The poppy is a symbol, which is a sign of hope and peace, fragility and strength through troubled times, and is not a one of aggression, blood, political and religious affiliation. This point will need discussion at an appropriate level for the children – and very careful handling too.
When approaching Remembrance Day as a topic, always consider your audience – the children. I know that sounds obvious, but I have seen this handled badly in the past. Young children can be easily distressed and confused by the wrong level of information and imagery, and too often I have sat in assemblies with them that have left them feeling upset and puzzled. However, there are some useful resources out there for upper primary and secondary aged children. The British Legion and the BBC have some great online resources, including videos explaining key concepts, eyewitness testimonies from soldiers of the First World War and news from recent service people about the work that British Legion and the charities it supports do now.
Sharing War Poetry can be a bit of cliché, but it shouldn’t be overlooked for that. Over the past few years, good collections of poetry with a range of voices from different conflicts have been published, as well as letters and postcards. Comparing, for example, jingoistic poems from the start of World War One with the grittier poetry of the latter stages of the war gives a lot of room for discussion. Also, the school community is a great source of letters and photographs, and documentary evidence, so do ask parents, grandparents and staff to look out for what they have stored away. For older primary aged children and secondary school children, carefully selected examples can be useful in bringing the past alive and making what can seem very remote for children much more accessible. Research local links to famous service people, such as war poet Wilfred Owen (who had strong ties to his home area), and build that into lessons or assemblies for children and you have a good hook to catch their interest.
Depending on the age of the children, the history and significance of poppies can be brought into the discussion. With young children, I’d start with an explanation that there was a terrible war a hundred years ago. In France, the places where the war took place got so muddy and churned up that no-one thought that anything would ever be normal there again, but soon poppies grew again, which gave people hope that life would be better for everyone. People wore poppies to help them think about the people they’d loved that had been hurt, and hope that there’d never be another war.
Older children can be told the more detailed story behind Remembrance Day. Soldiers in the trenches during the First World War noticed that poppies grew amongst the devastation caused by battle and a Canadian serviceman called John McCrae wrote a poem called ‘In Flander’s Fields’, which has become a central part of many services of commemoration. The First World War ended officially at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, and that, for many, marked the end of the Great War, the war to end all wars. Three years later, the first Poppy Day took place on 11th November, where those wanting to remember the sacrifices made by those in the war wore poppies and raised money to help those affected by it through disability or bereavement.
Poppy wreaths and poppies can be made in the classroom, and special prayers can be written for assemblies. For me, formal work is secondary to discussion and acts of remembrance. It is far more important that the children fully understand why we commemorate Remembrance Day, than commit empty words to paper. As the 11th falls on a Monday this year, the significance of the 11th hour, 11th day, 11th month can be covered in an assembly or lesson on the actual day.
Song by Sadie-Beth Holder – Walk the Extra Mile https://youtu.be/y1gUQ9jb_gk
British Legion website – Poppy Appeal http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/poppy-appeal-2017/
British Legion website – What We Remember http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance/what-we-remember/
British Legion website – How We Remember
British Legion website – A video about John McCrae’s In Flanders’ Fields