Exploring History Across Generations through “iWitnesses”
By: Gabriela Turriago-Lopez and Jessica Chen
Jamie Sawatzky is a history and civics teacher at Rocky Run Middle School. At this school, he teamed with his coworkers to found iWitness to History Day, a one-day program that brings small groups of students and eyewitnesses of a range of historical events together.
Sawatzky was first inspired when he was young at a picnic with a small group of people.
“There was a Holocaust survivor… and I had never heard of the Holocaust... I remember some really graphic stuff [that they told me].” Sawatzky credits this event as “planting the first seed.”
The idea came into further fruition toward the end of his first year of teaching after a student named Lauren Hartley asked if her grandfather, a World War II veteran, could speak to the class. Sawatzky agreed as he felt that it was a “good idea”. The next year, he worked to invite more World War II veterans to this event and decided to name the day “World War II Day.”
However, as time passed, a problem arose.
“When I started [this event], it was 60 years after World War II, so people were in their late 70s and early 80s… but then [15 years later, World War II veterans] are in their late 80s and 90s, and now our youngest World War II veteran is 94.”
As a result, Sawatzky and his team decided to change the concept of World War II Day.
“We started to bring in veterans from the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and civil rights people… we want to bring in more people who also may have had positive experiences in history. We don’t want it to [all] be about war.”
For Sawatzky, a memorable experience he had happened during lunch.
“The entertainment that year was a play of the Wizard of Oz… and the girl acting as Dorothy… sang Over the Rainbow, and this one guy, a Tuskegee Airmen,… was singing right along.”
Another memory Sawatzky has is of a survivor of the Bataan Death March.
“On that day, he tells… a horrible story… [and I told him] ‘let’s end on a positive note.’” Sawatzky starts to lead a Happy Birthday song for the survivor who was turning 88. He tells the
“We’re all a part of [history]. If you’ve ever immigrated… if you have served in the army… if you have voted… or if you’re an eyewitness to [an event] you’re a part of history.” - Jamie Sawatzky, Rocky Run Middle School civics teacher
students “to drown him out...with their enthusiasm… [afterwards the survivor] was so happy.”
Sawatzky also recounted another memory of iWitness to History Day.
“There was this guy from the Philippines...In the early part of the war, he was a middle school student..and school got interrupted... [after the war] he went to high school and college..but he never finished middle school.”
Sawatzky and his team decided to create an honorary certificate from Rocky Run. “He could no longer say he never got a degree from middle school.”
Through this program, Sawatzky wants both students and eyewitnesses to remember that “generations can learn from
each other.” Just before the guests were leaving, a group of students taught a veteran how to take a selfie.
Another one of his goals is aimed at students: “I don’t really teach from the textbook… I never gave my students a textbook.” Instead, he dedicates time every year for iWitness to History Day so that students can not only learn from books but also learn from real eyewitnesses of history.
One thing Sawatzky hopes all his students learned in his class is that “we’re all a part of [history]. If you’ve ever immigrated… if you have served in the army… if you have voted… or if you’re an eyewitness to [an event] you’re a part of history.” While teaching class, he often thinks of a quote by Robert Kennedy that helps him focus his classes on this important aspect of history. “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.”