©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

The Schoolwide Symposium: A Model for Learning

 Walt Cottingham

Iteach at Hendersonville High School in the mountains of western North Carolina. We are a small high school with about 600 students. Four years ago, several of us in the Social Studies Department were discussing ideas and methods for greater cooperative teaching. We wanted to address some of the common concerns in public education today, including student interest, community involvement in schools, and faculty morale and cooperation. How could we get students to become vitally interested in learning? How might we involve the community in order to provide an intergenerational learning experience? What could we do to energize our teaching so as to encourage both novice and veteran teachers and overcome the isolated chambers of our classrooms?

We wanted an activity that would “grab” our students and turn them into enthusiastic participants in the learning process. The challenge was to catch them all: the high achievers and the apathetic; those who thrive in school and those who merely tolerate it. We concluded that the best place to do it would be in the social studies, which looks at life in all its multicolored splendor and misery. From economics and politics to geography, history, and psychology, the social studies curriculum has something for everyone, some field or topic or approach that should inspire learning in each student.

We decided to hold a week-long schoolwide symposium focusing on one topic. We developed our strategy for the symposium with three definite goals in mind. We wanted to excite the student body and the faculty. We wanted to teach as much about the topic as possible, in order to convey its historical significance. And we wanted to present the material in as varied a format as possible. We chose as our topic the Vietnam War; for obvious reasons, Vietnam was, and is, a compelling subject that provides grist for argument, insight, and emotion.

Having chosen the topic, we got down to the nuts and bolts of teaching it. We established a schedule, sought help from the administration and faculty, and found a little money. We assembled a packet of information to give each student before the symposium began. This packet contained the agenda for the week along with basic historical information in the form of maps, biographies, a timeline of events, and a glossary of terms. We included a section of faculty memories of the Vietnam era. Other items included a copy of rules for American personnel in Vietnam, a ticket to Woodstock, a personalized draft card for each student, and two armbands of different colors. The packet also contained a response guide with questions and assignments for the week’s activities.

Our schedule for the week involved several key logistical features. We met at different times in varying group configurations: large groups of combined classes, small groups in classrooms, and the entire student body. Our presentation was equally varied: background lectures on topics such as the geography of Vietnam, the prelude to the war, the Tet Offensive, and political reaction to the war; the viewing of segments from feature films about Vietnam; the dramatic reenactment of a personal scenario; brief sessions in small groups on the draft, protest against the war, and the psychology of the war; and the viewing of a documentary film made by faculty and students.

Throughout the week, the social studies hall was set up to provide a range of stimuli in connection with the symposium topic. One end of the hall was transformed into a re-creation of a POW camp replete with a “tiger cage” for prisoners, while the other end was an Army recruiting station. There were posters and murals with slogans and scenes connected with the war. Music of the era played between classes. In short, we made every effort to immerse students in the topic and the time period in order to provide a sense of its essence.

On the final day of the symposium, all students and staff members dressed in clothing of the Vietnam era. Apparel ranged from love beads to combat fatigues, from Afro wigs to polyester bell bottoms. The energy level at the school was palpably high. Students staged a sit-in by the principa#146;s office (involving a lunch-related complaint), while local police in riot gear gently dispersed them (the police were part of our program). There was a real air of excitement— the kind of feeling that most often occurs in high schools before major athletic events. This was the day of the big game, except that “the game” was a social studies project.

In the afternoon the entire school congregated in the auditorium. As part of the dress requirement, students had to wear one of the arm bands included in their packets, making this choice as if they were teenagers living in the 1960s. One color represented a feeling of support for U.S. government policies in regard to the war, while the other color indicated a feeling of opposition to the war. These armbands were to be worn as statements of opinion based on the historical evidence, since we thought it important for students to arrive at a decision. We stressed, however, that the arm bands represented political judgments and did not indicate support or lack of support for American soldiers in Vietnam.

So there we were in all our regalia, joined by members of the community and the local press. It was quite a sight—a veritable flashback for many of us. On stage were seven panelists who reflected a broad spectrum of the Vietnam experience. They included three combat soldiers (two black and one white), an opponent of the war (a local minister who had acted as a draft counselor), a decorated colonel, and two nurses who had served on the battlefield. Each spoke eloquently about his or her experiences in regard to Vietnam, some for the first time in a public setting. Panel members took questions from the audience, and answered with the sincerity, knowledge, and passion that come only from first-hand experience.

This moving and powerful experience—the “grand finale” of the week’s events, if you wil#151;represented a meshing of our students’ newfound knowledge and appreciation of a historical event with the testimony of some who saw and lived it. The students were ready to ask questions of the panel, and I believe each took something from the discussion. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that, in one way or another, the symposium week transformed every member of the student body. Even those most reluctant learned something about Vietnam, and even the most cynical of students were moved by the tears of the panelists, tears shed from a distance of thirty years.

In every teaching experience there is an element of the unknown. We, as teachers, never really know how our words and actions will affect students in their future lives. In a similar vein, we never know exactly what effects an activity such as this symposium might have on a school. For our school, the effects seem highly desirable. The school was unified by positive energy in pursuit of a common learning experience, and there was a similarly strong positive response from the local community. In fact, students and faculty alike began asking for another symposium almost immediately.

The success of our symposium could certainly be duplicated in most schools. The actual configuration of the experience would be different, since every school has its own set of assets and liabilities to consider. Every school will doubtless have dozens of reasons why something could not work, and dozens of reasons why it could. These are obvious facets of individual school psychology.

It seems to me that whole school projects work better in small schools such as ours, but there are certainly ways that such projects could be adapted to larger schools. Financial considerations may be a significant factor, although costs can be kept minimal, and there is usually some way to find enough money. (We obtained mini-grants for funding this and subsequent symposia.) A more critical factor is the support of faculty and administration; it is essential for staff members to believe that the symposium is worthy of their support and participation.

Currently, we have completed our fourth symposium, this one a study of the Holocaust. Our second was based on the 1996 elections and our third was a view of McCarthyism and the early Cold War. From the input of students and teachers, we have generated a significant list of topics for future exploration via schoolwide symposia. Our project is fast becoming a tradition that students anticipate eagerly. In the long run, perhaps that is the most significant result of our work. Just the idea that students are looking forward to an academic experience is exhilarating to teachers. The students have discovered that learning involves many factors, that it can be fun, and that it may change their worldview—and ultimately, themselves.


Walt Cottingham teaches World History, World Geography, and Honors English IV at Hendersonville High School, Hendersonville, North Carolina.


Some Famous People from the Vietnam War Era


Muhammad Ali. Formerly Cassius Clay, this World Heavyweight Boxing Champion refused induction into the U.S. armed forces in 1967 on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister. He was stripped of his boxing titles and banned from the ring for almost four years.

The Beatles. British musical group that first appeared in the United States in 1964 and caused profound changes in the way many youth viewed the world.

William Calley. A platoon leader who was courtmartialed and found guilty for the murder of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in March 1968. He served about three and one-half years of house arrest.

Clark Clifford. Adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he was Secretary of Defense in 1968 and advocated de-emphasizing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Richard Daley. Mayor of Chicago, where the Democrats held their presidential nominating convention amidst strong antiwar protests in 1968.

Bao Dai. Emperor of Vietnam from 1925 to 1945 and 1949-1955; a figurehead alternately for French and Japanese rule.

Bob Dylan. The most influential American folksigner and composer during the 1960s. The nonconformist voice of his generation, he was a passionate critic of racism, injustice, and the Vietnam War.

Jane Fonda. Actress and antiwar activist, she was censured by the State Department in 1972 for broadcasting on Hanoi radio an appeal to U.S. pilots to halt their bombing raids on North Vietnam.

Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennedy’s vice-president, he became president in 1963 and was reelected in 1964 over Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Johnson was responsible for most of the military build-up of American forces in Vietnam. He declined to run for reelection in 1968.

John F. Kennedy. U.S. president from January 1961 to November 1963. He did not initiate the use of U.S. soldiers to fight in Vietnam, but did oversee the gradual build-up of military advisers, and was a strong supporter of Ngo Dinh Diem, the Catholic leader of South Vietnam.

George Kennan. Creator of the theory of containment of the Soviet Union after World War II. This concept underlaid the policy of stopping the spread of Communism throughout the Cold War, but Kennan became a sharp critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Henry Kissinger. Secretary of State under President Nixon, and the chief U.S. negotiator in the peace talks to end the Vietnam War.

Maya Lin. Winner of a design contest for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her design was controversial for not being “heroic,” but the Vietnam Wall is now the most visited memorial in Washington and a focal point of sympathy for Vietnam veterans.

Eugene McCarthy. Senator from Minnesota, McCarthy was a leading critic of the war and led the “children’s crusade” of antiwar protestors during the election campaign of 1968.

Robert McNamara. Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, he advised the United States to give South Vietnam a blank check to upgrade their arms. In a recent memoir, McNamara claims to have believed the United States could not win in Vietnam almost from the war’s outset.

Ho Chi Minh. Founder and first president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), he died in 1969, before the outcome of the war was decided.

Richard M. Nixon. Elected president in 1968 and 1972, he presided over the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam before resigning, under threat of impeachment over the Watergate scandal, in 1974.

Nguyen van Thieu. A military leader who was elected president of South Vietnam in 1967, but was forced to resign when North Vietnamese troops conquered South Vietnam in 1975.

Le Duc Tho. North Vietnam’s chief negotiator in the peace talks.

William Westmoreland. Commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. He took much of the blame for the military conduct of the war, especially after the Tet offensive of February 1968.

The Faculty Remembers Vietnam


I was stationed at Charleston Air Force Base in Charleston, S.C., from April 1970 to June 1972. I was a courier with the Armed Forces Courier Service …

At least one day a week a C-141 from Vietnam would deliver a load of bodies. The pallets of caskets, about twelve to a pallet, would be lined up in the freight terminal. Mortuaries from all around the Carolinas and Georgia would come to pick up their local sons. This was a stark reminder of what was going on on the other side of the world. It surprised me that we all went about our business with the pallets of caskets in the middle of everything. The capacity to depersonalize war and death is always with us.

I lost one good friend in the war, a high school and college buddy. Separating his death from those shiny aluminum caskets was sometimes difficult. Many years later I found his name on the Vietnam Memorial. It was a surprisingly emotional experience for me.

Keith Dalbec, Captain USAF 1968-1972


The one thing that stays with me from that era: how our government allowed people, who called themselves Americans, to aid the enemy and protest against our own. While we were fighting for our country, people like Jane Fonda were sending aid and support to the enemy. They even went there to support their troops in person. A few people turned their back on our country and escaped to Canada without doing their duty as it is stated in The American Creed by William Tyler Page: “I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it; to support its constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag; and to defend it against all enemies.” It is the responsibility of all Americans to aid their country; sometimes we were sent off to fight the enemy, when we should have stayed home to fight them. Jim Carter let traitorous people come back. Treason should not go unpunished.

Coach Stanley


In 1968, I was a senior in high school … The thing I remember most is that every night on the news they gave the body count—how many troops from each side had been killed that day…

One of my high school teachers had a son serving in Vietnam… She dealt with it very well on the surface, but she lit up from the inside out every time she got a letter from him.

A friend of mine was an officer in Vietnam. He said you never stayed in the Officer’s Quarters without making sure you knew all the escape routes, because someone who was p.o.’d at an officer was likely to throw a fragmentation grenade through a window. He also said that being shot in the back became a real possibility if you were the type of officer who took needless risks or maybe just made some grunt mad.

Linda Henderson


My brother was killed January 28, 1968. He was just shy of his 21st birthday. He was with the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Bragg. He had been in Vietnam since after Thanksgiving 1967. It took two or more weeks to have the body shipped from Vietnam. The waiting was unbelievable for everyone. My family was changed forever.

I honestly must say that until recently (maybe three or four years ago), I could not watch or hear about Vietnam, but now I can write this. I guess time heals, but it never takes away the pain.

Mary Martin


Statement to the Draft Board, October 12, 1970: I object to war in any form because war involves the taking of persons’ lives. I cannot in good conscience justify the killing of any person by my hand.

My religious belief calls me to serve. I cannot and do not object to ministering to anyone sick or injured. I don’t think I would object to serving in a noncombatant capacity, although I am not sure what this entails. I cannot justify, on the grounds of my belief, participation in any movement which is designed to seek out and kill a certain enemy. If “noncombatant” involves other than this, I would probably not object to it …

Walt Cottingham


It was 1967 when I graduated from high school. Who cares? My slice of time was probably no more important for me than yours is for you. ...

Bob Dylan sang, with no better voice then than now, of how “The Times They Are A Changin.’” And, they were …You could hear Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret” if you wanted to experience the flip side of a philosophically divided country…

The things I remember most are the friends. People who disagreed on the answer. People who were committed to a cause. People whose beliefs changed (one way or the other) when confronted with the daily doses of death and destruction. People who lost loved ones—physically or emotionally—as a war wreaked havoc home and abroad …

What I began to suspect was, as a folk song of the sixties suggested, “the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” And what I learned then, and continue to learn now, is that people who honor their beliefs are to be respected and admired.

Kevin Daugherty

From the Student Response Guide



Each student should formulate at least five questions about the Vietnam War. These questions should demonstrate thoughtful attention to the material that is presented both in this packet and through the various class activities. You will have an opportunity to ask questions of the panelists at the assembly. If you do choose to question a panelist, make sure that your remarks are serious, thought-provoking, and courteous, in line with the standards of excellence in our school.



Why was the era of the Vietnam War such a troubling time for the United States? What were the sources of conflict within our country? What made this war different from other wars? Why has the legacy of Vietnam continued to be a troubling one? What is your opinion of the participation of the United States in this war? In your answer, consider the experiences of this week as reference points. Think about the knowledge you have gained and use it to write a well-ordered essay. In your concluding paragraph, deliver your opinion on the war, taking into consideration the thoughts that led you to choose your armband.

Three More Schoolwide Symposia


Election 1996

In our second symposium, we dealt with major issues of the 1996 campaign in local, state, and national arenas. Faculty members created a video of historic conventions and elections of the twentieth century, and spoke to classes about important issues of the current election. Each student created campaign buttons for candidates of his/her choice. In mini-classes, we analyzed the presidential debates, the Electoral College, the psychology of elections, and the manner of elections around the world. We also conducted a mock election in actual voting booths.

On the final day, everyone in the school dressed in patriotic colors and wore all manner of buttons and stickers. We then met in a schoolwide assembly for a three part presentation. This began with a mock presidential debate with students acting the various roles. Next, two local political activists engaged in a point/counterpoint discussion. Finally, we broke up to hold state caucuses with a teacher in charge of each state. Students had been assigned to states proportionately (amazingly enough, we had 535 students at the time, the exact number of votes in the Electoral College).

When we returned to the auditorium, the atmosphere was similar to a political convention, with a roll call of the states producing a choice for president with numbers on a big screen reflecting the electors’ choices. There was great enthusiasm on the part of the students, who were by this time for the most part informed voters. They yelled and chanted for their favorites, acting about as sane as regular folks do at a convention. Hopefully, in the process, they gained knowledge that will contribute to effective participation in the real elections of their future.


The McCarthy Era

We began this symposium by presenting students with information on the historical background of McCarthyism and the early Cold War. We used lectures, films, and printed material to help with this introduction. We also gave each student a name tag with the name of a real person from the era to be worn throughout the week.

At the first class meeting, we identified those students in the audience who were blacklisted as supposed Communists, and affixed a red sticker to their name tags. On another day, we held Socratic seminars based on readings from original historical documents. In the middle of the week, we transformed two classrooms—one into a Beat Generation coffeehouse and the other into a typical 1950s soda shop. The effort here was to integrate social as well as political history into the process.

For the grand finale, students dressed in ‘50s attire for an assembly program. Advanced drama students acted out actual scenes from the Army-McCarthy hearings juxtaposed with scenes from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Three speakers with personal experiences of the McCarthy era—two in the entertainment business and one in the foreign service—then presented their stories and opinions of McCarthyism to the student body. We concluded the week with a ‘50s style sock hop in the gym.


The Holocaust

Our most recent symposium began with a student-written dramatic presentation that reduced the entire school to deathly silence and contemplation. Students wearing black attire rose from points throughout the audience, speaking the real words of various participants in the Holocaust, then moving to the stage to act out the culminations of their stories. This was followed by mini-sessions on art and music of the Holocaust, the historical background, the psychology involved, and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The English department spent the entire week teaching literature of the Holocaust.

On the second day, we took the entire student body in shuttle bus fashion to the local synagogue for a presentation on Jewish tradition and culture. On the next day, we discussed heroism and resistance, using original documents and documentary film from the era. In the evening, we offered an optional viewing of the movie Swing Kids.

Our final day involved a powerful and moving presentation by three local panelists who were victims of the Holocaust. That night, after the Friday football game, we loaded six charter buses with about 240 students and 35 chaperones and headed for Washington, D.C. Every student in the school had the opportunity to go on this trip. We spent Saturday on the Mall, visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum and other sites. At 9:00 pm, we reloaded the buses at Union Station, and made the return trip home. The trip cost each student $55 for transportation, with scholarship money available for those who could not pay. It was a marvelous day filled with valuable opportunities to learn.