A Lesson on WWII Primary Sources; or, how eBay Finds some Educational Value

New websites are like new toys.

We can’t seem to find enough ways to play with them until they either break or get discarded for the next big thing.

In the early 2000s, eBay was my new toy—and a purchase from those early days found an unusual role in my classroom.

One day, while I had some down time at my office, I puttered around eBay looking for whatever crap struck my fancy.  In those days, it was THE place to find hard-to-find knickknacks, doodads, and whatnot—a veritable treasure chest.

I didn’t find treasure, but I did find a map.

For some odd reason, I needed an old map to frame for my den (even though I lacked a den, a yacht, and Sperry Top-sider footwear).  Though there were plenty of old maps of Maine, Bermuda, Aruba and other preppy hangouts, but I was drawn to a 1940s WPA map of New York City given to servicemen during World War II.

Never mind that it was folded, wrinkly, yellowed and with a funny double-print font that’s hard to read; I needed it for $20.

Let’s say I really didn’t need it.  This relic of wartime Gotham sat in my desk for a decade.

A few months ago, one of my fifth grade classes was wrapping up their unit on US History.  World War II seemed as good a finish as any.  A half-decade of Call of Duty games certainly prepared them with enough content knowledge to teach a military history class at West Point.

To end the unit, I decided to whip out this old relic of a map.  It couldn’t be mounted on a wall, since it was double-sided.  Nonetheless, I made copies of it and gave it to the class.  They examined the map, automatically finding the places they recognize (it’s easy since all the sports stadiums use a ballpark icon).

To really analyze the map, I split the class into groups.  One group made a top-10 list of places a soldier would visit on leave.  Another planned out a 24-hour day for a soldier, detailing where he would visit and for how long.  Still another group came up with places that weren’t on the map.

Some of the responses were downright hilarious.

The top-10 list included places like the George Washington Bridge and the YMCA.  One group gave a soldier five minutes to get from the Statue of Liberty to Harlem.  The  list of places not listed on the map ranged from pizza places to bars to…strip clubs and “love motels” (which we decided to lump into the generic term of “adult establishments.”)

The results, though, were some pretty damn good essays.  They covered about not only about what soldiers did on their free time in New York, but also prevailing attitudes about how soldiers were supposed to behave i.e., the lack of “adult establishments.”

All from an impulse buy on eBay so many years ago.

Here is the link to WWII Lesson Plan.  It includes worksheets and graphic organizers.  Try it out in your own classroom.

This is the  Essay Planning Page for the culminating project.

Here’s also a PDF of the WPA New York City Map for Servicemen that goes with it.

1 Comment

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One response to “A Lesson on WWII Primary Sources; or, how eBay Finds some Educational Value

  1. Deanne

    Great stuff…I love using maps and will use this one in my US and Urban Exploration class. Thanks.

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