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Vail Valley Voices: Real-life heroes

Every year since the 2007-08 school year, two innovative teachers at Red Canyon High School, Troy Dudley and Ann Constien, have asked a select group of Vietnam veterans relate their individual wartime experiences to the kids. The idea is to go beyond the textbook and bring the history of the Vietnam War era to life.

Troy (social studies teacher) and Ann (language arts) have designed a unique program for teaching their students about an important period in American history. The syllabus they’ve implemented is much more than kids listening to war stories. Quite the contrary, by combining history with language arts Troy and Ann are helping their students to think for themselves.

The Cliffs Notes version of the program goes something like this: Each week over eight weeks, a different veteran comes into the classroom and speaks to the young people about his or her experiences in Vietnam. The vet speaks at the Eagle campus one day and the Edwards the next in a candid exchange about the veteran’s perspective of the ’60s and the Vietnam War.

Each veteran has seen combat. Each has a unique perspective of the war and of the period. Among the veterans are former officers and enlisted personnel representing an array of military occupational specialties – infantrymen, aviators, nurses, etc. Also among the veterans are Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star and Air Medal recipients. And even a former prisoner of war.

During the course of the semester, Troy and Ann provided context by familiarizing the kids with the Cold War, communism and the general milieu of the period. Everything is on the table from the “Domino theory,” to the boredom and terror of living in a combat zone, to the genocide in Cambodia after American forces left Vietnam.

Subsequent to each veteran’s presentation, the students are tasked to write “short-constructed responses” describing each of the following: their opinion of the presentation; whether they thought America won or lost the war; and now get this,how their individual biases affected the way they received the information. Imagine that, asking young people to consider their own biases when analyzing information. What an extraordinary concept!

On March 10, Troy and Ann invited all of this year’s speakers to a wrap-up meeting. There in the Red Canyon conference room the two educators gave each of us feedback on our presentations, asked for input regarding future presentations and generally discussed how to better serve students in upcoming years.

But as he saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Predicated upon the students’ own words, it appears this pioneering idea is working quite well:

• “I’m glad she (Pat Hammon) came in to speak to us because she changed my opinion of women in the Army completely.”

• “When I heard we were having Vietnam vets come in and speak to us, I immediately thought of the bum on the corner holding a sign saying ‘Vietnam veteran – anything appreciated.’ My opinion of all Vietnam veterans being druggie, hippy burnouts was hugely contradicted when the veterans came in and told us their stories. Listening to the veterans speak has changed my bias from a negative view towards Vietnam veterans to a positive one.”

• “I learned stuff you guys (teachers) couldn’t teach us.”

• “Having them talking to us is getting it first hand. It sticks with you.”

It’s no surprise that Troy and Ann are making a difference. As Troy said, “It’s about depth, not breadth. We’re trying to get the kids to think at a whole other level.”

Ann told us: “They learn by being stretched and we try to stretch them while building trust.”

I grew up attending parochial schools in Chicago and by any standard received an outstanding college preparatory education. I was taught by many fine and dedicated nuns and Christian brothers. Having said that, I recall but a handful of teachers who brought the passion and energy to the task of educating as I’ve experienced with Troy and Ann.

But nothing happens in a vacuum, and Judy Caliguiri (counselor) and Wade Hill (principal) must also be commended for their support of this outstanding program.

Pat Hammon (liaison between Red Canyon and the veterans and an Army nurse who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969) spoke volumes when she said, “It was learning for them, but healing for us.”

Speaking to these young people about a time of great conflict provided not only differing perspectives of the war for the kids, but it also helped many of us purge demons that have lurked for many, many years.

Hammon describes Red Canyon as a gem of the valley. I’ll expand upon her sentiments by adding these two outstanding educators are more than gems. They’re real-life heroes!

Quote of the day: “A man never stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.”

Butch Mazzuca is an Edwards resident.


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