Urbana High students learn about Vietnam era through interviews

Urbana High students learn about Vietnam era through interviews

URBANA – For a group of high school students, a history assignment has become a case of lights, camera, flashback.

Beyond textbooks, this group of Urbana High School juniors has begun turning the pages of history, studying primary documents and conducting interviews with locals to find out just what motivated people to protest during the Vietnam era – and specifically after Kent State and what it was like on both sides of the barricade.

Their teacher, Mark Foley, said the process would help make history come alive. To begin that process, he put together a Web site, www.usd116. org/mfoley/strike, that includes primary documents and other readings on the era. Once the interviews with locals have been edited, they'll go up on the Web site, too.

"They're just going to learn a ton from actually talking to someone who was here at the events," he said.

On a Thursday in early March, Katarina Marjanovic and Alison Shapiro wait for their interview subject – University Laboratory High School teacher Chris Butler – to finish class.

Marjanovic looks over her list of questions.

"I thought it was interesting that somebody in our area played an active role in protesting the Vietnam war," she said. "When you (look at history) more locally, I think it's more interesting."

Shapiro will be running the camera. She wants to know from subjects "the initial reason why they personally got involved," she said.

In his interview, Butler talked about how a high school teacher challenged his ideas, and how after the killings of students by the National Guard at Ohio's Kent State University in 1970, he became disillusioned with the situation in Vietnam. He began protesting the war, he said, including on the University of Illinois campus.

"Kent State was what set this place (the UI) off," he said. "The tension and the anger built up, and then you get a police riot."

Though his view of events has become more nuanced in hindsight, Butler said, the era instilled in him a will to fight for what he believes in and to try to make the world better.

"I haven't betrayed any of those dreams," he said. "I'm still doing something worthwhile."

Part of the project's relevance to the juniors is its location.

"We have memories in the same place that these dramatic events happened," said Gretchen Booth.

Her classmate Magda Nilges said the project also provided a new challenge: "Go out and find stories instead of just relying on a book to read."

They wonder if, in 30 years, someone could ask them about their part in history, though they feel they haven't had the same struggles of previous generations.

"We could talk about how Obama was elected president," Marjanovic said.


Seeking stories

Have a tale to share about your role in local events during the Vietnam era? Urbana High School history teacher Mark Foley's oral-history project is ongoing. Contact Foley through the project's Web site, www.usd116.org/mfoley/strike, or at the high school, 384-3524.

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