Victory in Europe
A Reenactment of VE Day, 1945
Rebecca N. Jones
The big band sound of Glenn Miller booms. Boys in khaki pants and plaid shirts jitterbug with girls dressed in skirts and wearing big bows tied around their curls. Participants cheer and yell when it is announced that the Nazis have surrendered. Wounded and recovering soldiers make speeches about invading Normandy, crashing in their P-51D Mustang planes, and capturing the city of Berlin. Girls tell about working as nurses in Britain and as factory laborers at Goodyear Tire and Rubber making blimps and Jeep tires. Farmers discuss rationing and salvaging rubber and scrap iron. Is it really 1945? No, this is a group of 120 fifth graders at Comanche Intermediate School in Comanche, Texas. They are doing history by reenacting a Victory in Europe celebration at the close of World War II.
After visiting a Civil War reenactment conducted by adults, I thought that it might be possible to do something similar with my own students. Although I have had to work out small problems along the way, reenactments have been a successful teaching tool in my classroom and something that my students eagerly anticipate. Over the years, my students in grades 5 through 8 have reenacted life on the Oregon Trail, the nights before and after the Battle of San Jacinto, and the Battle of Bull Run. The 1945 Victory in Europe Dance and Reenactment was probably the easiest to conduct and the simplest in costuming, thus I will use it as an example of how it can be done.
Academic Preparation (3 weeks)
I have learned that there are three important considerations a teacher must make before staging a reenactment. First, to be successful, my students and I had to have a solid background of information to use and a definite plan to follow. Reenactments take a good deal of teacher and student preparation before the actual event. The teacher and students must do in-depth study and research before they have any knowledge they can apply. The more you know, the better.
We prepared for the VE reenactment in a variety of ways. We began with a traditional study of World War II based mostly on our textbook. However, the text was not enough. Since World War II was such a massive war with horrific human destruction, I focused on limited topics which I thought my fifth graders could comprehend. We studied the rise of Hitler and the Axis and Allied Powers, Pearl Harbor, the Invasion of Normandy, and the fall of Berlin. We also focused on the Holocaust and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We spent some time studying the military machines of that period. In addition to using the textbook, we watched actual film footage from the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Invasion of Normandy, and we spent time on the Internet researching various battles and the people involved. I pulled every book I could find in our school and public libraries that included photographs taken during the 1940s, and we had a find-and-share session of photos we thought were important and interesting.
In addition, we read The Big Lie by Isabella Leitner and did further independent reading based on student choice and interest.
Once my fifth graders had a general knowledge base of the war itself, we brought it closer to home and interviewed people in our community who remembered the 1940s. We asked questions about their memories of the war and how the war affected the home front. We also asked about the popular culture of the time, such as the styles of clothing and types of music and automobiles. I strongly encouraged my students to use all the primary sources possible. Often, after an interview, a student would bring to the class all types of World War II memorabilia to share. Once my students had gathered and learned needed background information, we were ready to apply our ideas.
1940s Etiquette (Practiced all Year)
The second consideration for teachers is managing student behavior. When I put 120 fifth graders together, I had to be at least reasonably certain that they could control themselves and that they would do what was expected of them. (Of course, reenactments can be done with fewer students.) I did not jump right into reenactments at the beginning of the year. Rather as the year went on, I gave students the opportunity to prove to me that they could control their own behavior as individuals and as a group. We started with small projects, and I gradually gave them more and more freedom as they earned it. If they lost control or abused a privilege, freedoms were removed. By the time we did a major reenactment, my students understood what behaviors were and were not allowed. I made sure they were all kept busy during the reenactment itself, and they knew beforehand that they would be removed from the activity if behavior was poor. During such reenactments, both parents and teachers are present.
Third, adequate costuming must be available for all students. This was one of the best aspects of the Victory in Europe Dance because costuming was easier to develop than, say, a Civil War uniform. After considering photographs from the 1940s, interviews with grandparents or elderly neighbors, and information taken from the Internet, my students decided what role they wished to play. Would they be wounded soldiers sent home to recover, nurses off duty, Rosie-the-Riveter type factory workers, farmers, or Army recruiters? I accepted any role and any type of costuming which they could substantiate with their research.
Where did we acquire the clothes we needed? Most of my students created their costumes from their own closets. When that did not work, I encouraged them to check their parents closets. Several of the boys borrowed old hats from their grand-fathers. Second-hand shops were also great places to buy clothing to turn into costumes. The ladies at our local shop helped me dig out khaki pants, plaid shirts, blouses, and pleated skirts and then sold them to me for 50 cents each. Antique stores were also sources for clothing; however, they tended to be pricier. Teachers in my school also donated trousers, leather shoes, and scarves. (The longer I do this reenactment, of course, the greater my reenactment wardrobe becomes.) I loan out clothes, and my students often do the same. Although not everyone could be dressed with complete authenticity, I was pleasantly surprised with the costumes my students developed.
Planning the Program and Learning to Jitterbug (2 to 3 Days)
Once our research was completed, costumes assembled, and rules of behavior understood, we were ready to develop our plan for the reenactment itself. I learned from attending the Civil War reenactment that reenactors have a general plan to follow, and I discovered that it is always better to let the students participate in planning the reenactment. If they feel some ownership of the plan, they tended to follow it better.
The first part of our plan was to decide on authentic refreshments. During the rationing of the 1940s, what did Americans eat? Which of these foods did we want to serve? Also, we researched types of music popular in the 40s, names of bands, and titles of songs. With the resurgence in swing dancing today, finding CDs of the big bands was easy. What types of dancing did people do? Thats where the jitterbug came in. Since this is a rather wild dance where you can stay far away from your partner, my students loved it. However, sometimes I had to do a sales job and convince them that it would be fun if they would only give it a try (see pages 8-9).
Next, students developed their speeches. Not all students wanted a speaking part, but those who did needed to plan beforehand what they would say about their wartime experiences. (Older students could probably write their own lines; however, my fifth graders needed teacher direction). Furthermore, I learned that a narrator who can keep the event flowing is necessary. With fifth graders, I did the narrating (but again, an older student might be able to handle the part).
Finally, we wrote out the order of events so that everyone would know what to expect, and we practiced speeches, placement, and transitions in the classroom before the real event. Although some improvisation is always necessary, I found that the better prepared my students were, the better our reenactment was.
Once my students were prepared, supervising the actual event itself was easy. We held our VE Dance in the cafeteria on a weekday afternoon, and parents and grandparents attended. I began with a welcome and the announcement that the German Army had surrendered. Everyone cheered, and we celebrated with a dance tune. I discovered that about four tunes were enough for our reenactment, with speeches and refreshments in between. One of my students commented that the refreshments were really important because Jitterbugging was not dancing. It was more like survival! By the end of our reenactment, I had a bunch of sweating, laughing kids who acted like they were thrilled that Hitlers army was defeated and that the war in Europe was over. They dedicated themselves to defeating the Japanese military and winning in the Pacific theater.
When grading a complex project like this reenactment, I find that using a rubric is helpful. Typically, I divide out the behaviors that I want my students to exhibit and assign a point value to each. Depending on my purpose, the rubric can be detailed or simple. For example, a very simple rubric could read: 50 points for acquiring a fairly authentic costume and 50 points for accurate participation in the reenactment. I always like to give the rubric to students before they begin preparation, so they all understand what to do in order to earn a good grade.
The comments I received from grandparents and parents about this activity were very positive. I think that maybe we created a memory upon which my students can build through further study in later grades. I had parents tell me that their children were so excited about the reenactment that they actually came home and talked about it and the history of World War II with family members. Administrators and teachers remarked that all the students were laughing and smiling with each other during the reenactment, rather than bickering. (You can hardly jitterbug and not laugh.) However, the greatest praise I received came from one of my students. He wrote, I had the best year of all this year! You made history fun and interesting. You didnt just give us a paper and said do this. You let us get into the peoples shoes and really be a part of it. If a fifth grader will write words like that, then all the effort that goes into this project is well worth it. G
Suggested References: World War II
Coleman, Penny. Rosie the Riveter. New York: Crown, 1995.
Goolrick, William K. The Home Front U.S.A. World War II. Alexandria, VA: Time Life Books, 1977.
Gourley, Catherine. Welcome to Mollys World: 1944. Middleton, WA: Pleasant, 1999.
Jordan, Killian., ed., Life - The Way We Were: A Photographic Journey Through Americas Last Hundred Years. New York: Time Inc., 1999.
Leitner, Isabella. The Big Lie: A True Story. New York: Scholastic, Inc. 1992.
Maginnis, Tara. Timeline of Costume History. The Costumers Manifesto. 2000. Available at www.costumes.org/pages/timelinepagesil 940s/htm
Miller, Glenn. The Best of the Lost Recordings and Secret Broadcasts. (CD). New York: BMG Entertainment (1998).
Scherman, David E., ed., Life Goes to War: A Picture History of World War II. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1977.
Stanton, Melissa., ed., Life - Sixty Years: A 60th Anniversary Celebration 1936-1996. New York: Life Books, 1996.
Williams, John. (writer) and John Pratt (producer and director). The World at War: Banzai - Japan Strikes, December 1941 (video, 1980). (Available from the Thames Video Collection, HBO Video, 1370 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY, 10019); see also The World at War: Morning.
Related Resources: Jitterbug
To learn to jitterbug or swing dance, visit the free on-line sites listed below. Major record and video stores also carry a variety of dance videos for rent or for sale, and there are many more on-line dance instruction sites. Most videos are for adult dancers, and so the teacher will likely need to simplify information for students.
Sponsored by the company vidbook.com; this website features pictures and video on how to do basic and intermediate steps. Search on swing dance.
Sponsored by Philadelphia Swing Dance Society, this website includes pictures and a how-to video.
One can purchase swing dance videos at this website; they run about $20.
Rebecca N. Jones teaches fifth grade social studies at Comanche Intermediate School in Comanche, Texas. She has a masters degree from Tarleton State University and has taught for seventeen years.
How to Dance the Jitter Bug
Perhaps the most challenging part of the Victory in Europe Dance reenactment is the dance itself. However, the basic jitterbug is one of the easiest dances to do because there are a few basic steps and beyond that, anything goes. Students can improvise and make up new steps and moves as they go along. The more time you give them to learn and practice (I give them about three class periods), the better they will do.
I send a note home to parents explaining what this class project is about and that the students will be taking some time in the classroom to learn the jitterbug of the 1940s. I always ask for parent permission, and I invite parents to participate. If a child for some reason cannot participate, I find other activities for them such as serving refreshments, operating the CD player, or taking photographs.
This is also a great time to practice manners (which some of my students need to do). For many of my students, the worst part about jitterbugging was asking someone (or being asked) to dance and then holding someones hand. So, we practiced over and over to end the jittery nerves and the giggles. Every boy asked every girl to dance, and vice versa, and the only answer acceptable was Yes, with a smile. As one boy told me, Once you do it twenty to thirty times, it is just not scary anymore!
I taught several basic jitterbug steps which I modified for fifth graders. But, you can always change any of these to fit your students. We named each of our steps so that the students could decide what to do next and call out the change while they were dancing.
This is the main step. Use this while thinking of the next step to do.
1. Couple steps together with right foot.
2. Step back.
3. Step together with left foot. Repeat over and over.
1. Couple grips right hands.
2. Both go down.
3. Pull each other back up quickly. Switch hands and go back down.
1. Couple begins a one-motion pivot.
2. Back to back in pivot.
3. Finish pivot and faces each other. May repeat.
1. Boy moves under gir#146;s left arm.
2. Girl turns and pulls back. Face each other.
3. Boy reverses back into beginning position.
1. Girl moves under boys left arm.
2. Boy turns and pulls back. Face each other.
3. Girl reverses back into beginning position.