D-Day’s 75th anniversary renews interest in some classrooms

In this photo taken Tuesday, May 21, 2019, photo, Zane Taylor and other students use virtual reality technology to learn about the D-Day invasion at Normandy during a history class at Crossroads FLEX school in Cary, N.C. Its 75th anniversary brings extra classroom attention to D-Day, which has waned as a topic that’s emphasized in schools across the world. In a North Carolina classroom, students learn about spies, the deadly military practice before D-Day and a general who kept his plans "on the down low." (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

CARY, N.C. — Kasey Turcol has just 75 minutes to explain to her high school students the importance of D-Day — and if this wasn’t the 75th anniversary of the turning point in World War II, she wouldn’t devote that much time to it. D-Day is not part of the required curriculum in North Carolina — or in many other states.

Turcol reminds her students at Crossroads FLEX High School in Cary, North Carolina, that D-Day was an Allied victory that saved Europe from Nazi tyranny and that the young men who fought and died were barely older than they are. She sprinkles her lesson with details about the number of men, ships, and planes involved in the landing at Normandy while adding a few lesser-known facts about a Spanish spy and a deadly military practice conducted six months earlier in England.

In the U.S. and other countries impacted by the events on June 6, 1944, historians and educators worry that the World War II milestone is losing its resonance with today’s students.

In France, which was liberated from German occupation, D-Day isn’t a stand-alone topic in schools. German schools concentrate on the Holocaust and the Nazi dictatorship. And despite having been part of the Allied Powers, in Russia, the schools avoid D-Day because they believe it was the victories on the Eastern Front that won the war.

“History has taken a back seat” in the U.S. because of the focus on science and math classes, says Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day in College Park, Maryland.

In the U.S., teaching about World War II varies from state to state. It’s often up to the teachers to decide how much time they want to give to individual battles like D-Day.

California’s History-Social Science Framework, adopted in 2016, includes for sophomores an expansive unit on World War II that includes how the conflict was “a total war,” the goals of the Allied and Axis Powers and how the fighting was fought on different fronts. The unit also includes a section on the Holocaust.

In New York, school officials are using the D-Day anniversary to review the curriculum and “make recommendations on how the current average time of 90 minutes of World War II study in a school year can be strengthened, expanded and mandated.”

There are special programs available to immerse select students in the history of D-Day.

For eight years, National History Day sent 15 pairs of students and teachers to Normandy to immerse them in the history of D-Day. The high school sophomores and juniors would research an individual soldier close to them — a family member or someone from their hometown — who died. On the last day, the group visited a cemetery where each student read a eulogy for their individual soldier.

Teachers also have outside resources. The National World War II Museum offers an electronic field trip through D-Day and provides suggested lessons plans.

In North Carolina, history is taught through “conceptual design” with connections to themes such as geography, economics and politics, said Meghan Grant, coordinating teacher for secondary social studies in Wake County schools.

The lessons are based on a method of teaching social studies that was developed in 2013 and used by about half the states, said Larry Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies . Paska said it may focus on asking students a question like “What makes an event a turning point in the war?” Students then would use difference sources of evidence to back up their answer.

As part of her D-Day lesson, Turcol tells her class of juniors and seniors that the Germans thought an attack from the Allied forces wouldn’t be possible.

“It’s too stormy. It’s too risky,” she says. “And what do we do? Yeah, we find a glimmer of hope. On June 5th, the skies kind of clear. The moon kind of shines. And we’re like, this is the moment. This is what is happening.”

She tells students that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower kept D-Day plans on the “down low.”

Turcol plays a few minutes of a documentary about D-Day to “show you the true humanity of the war,” she says.

“You saw the German praying … asking for his mother, father, asking for this to be over. Not everybody is on the same message in Germany,” she says. “Everybody here is a father, a mother, a brother, a cousin, a friend. So every life matters.”