READFIELD — Shane Gower has been teaching history for the last 18 years, but for the next 12 months he’ll get to be a historian.

Gower, who has spent all 18 of those years at Maranacook Community High School, is one of just 18 teachers nationwide to be selected by National History Day to spend the next year studying America’s involvement in World War II through the prism of one soldier’s life.

“This is what we should be doing to learn about the war, learning these individual stories,” Gower said. “This is really what history is about in a lot of ways.”

National History Day is a Maryland-based nonprofit formed 40 years ago to give students an opportunity to conduct original research on historical topics of interest. Each year, the organization selects teachers to participate in a program called Understanding Sacrifice, which provides a guided study into one region of the war and gives teachers an opportunity to research the life of a soldier killed in action who is from the teacher’s home state.

Gower, who will study America’s involvement in the Mediterranean region, will spend a year conducting in-depth research on the life of a local soldier using local and archival historical resources. Gower will attend lectures, study historical books about the conflict and work with National History Day staff members to form ideas from their experience, all while keeping his regular full-time teaching job.

The program, sponsored by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees American cemeteries across the world, will end with an expedition across southern France and Italy to visit battlefields and memorials to Gower’s soldier, who has not yet been identified.

Gower will deliver a eulogy at the soldier’s grave during that visit.

He will return home and use his research and experience to develop lesson plans to be used in his classroom. Those lesson plans, like those developed by the other teachers in Gower’s group, will be made available to other teachers across the world through a dedicated website.

‘MORE AUTHENTIC’

Gower, 40, has experienced firsthand the power of connecting his students to history through the personal lives of those who lived it.

Four years ago, Gower organized a trip to the Rhone American Cemetery and Memorial in southern France, where students visited the grave of seven Maine soldiers. When Gower planned a return visit to France two years later, he had his students track down information on Maine soldiers buried there.

That search led to the family of Sgt. George C. Arsenault, of Rumford. The research included interviews with Arsenault’s family, including a brother, and letters the soldier sent home before he was killed in France during Operation Dragoon.

The research led to another connection with a soldier with Maine ties who was killed in France. Robert Goddard, of Richmond, contacted Gower after reading of his classes’ work in a Kennebec Journal story. Goddard’s brother, Lewis Frelan Goddard, was a member of the elite Jedburgh operation when he was killed while parachuting into France to conduct special forces operations against the Germans. Robert Goddard met with Gower’s class several times, telling stories about his brother, and even attending a memorial in his honor last spring.

“I feel like we forget that these people involved in these wars had lives before they went to war,” senior Natalie Wicks, of Readfield, said last year. “It’s just a mass of people that we think of, but everyone had their own story. They weren’t just another number in an Army.”

Hearing the soldiers’ stories has made history about more than learning the dates and causes of war. It helps students understand the human cost of mass casualties. Arsenault and Goddard represent hundreds of thousands of others who were killed, each representing a life cut short and family and friends left to pick up the pieces. Discovering the effect of those connections has changed Gower’s approach to teaching history.

“This is, in some ways, the best way for students to learn about history,” Gower said. “It feels more authentic to me. It seems like it should have been a no-brainer.”

PAYING RESPECT

Gower learned about the Understanding Sacrifice program after reading a newspaper story about Erica Swenson, an English and social studies teacher at Poland’s Bruce M. Whittier Middle School who took part in the program last year.

Gower contacted Swenson and learned another program was being organized this year. Gower went through the rigorous application process, which required writing samples and detailed overviews of his lessons, and was selected earlier this year. He is the only teacher from Maine, and one of only two from New England, to earn a spot in the program this year.

Gower already has started the assigned reading and next month will head to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II memorial and meet with representatives of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Gower is anxious to dive into his study and to make connections with teachers around the country. He also relishes a chance to return to Frelan Goddard’s grave and pay respects to the man Gower feels he knows personally.

“There are so many things I’m looking forward to,” Gower said.

Swenson said Gower’s experience will be even better, and useful, than he imagines.

“It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever done as a teacher,” she said. “I’m going to be using that information with my kids for years to come.”

Swenson, who studied the life of Pfc. Stanley Clark, found documents and family members who still lived in the area. She used that testimony, as well as photos and newspapers, to create personal connections to Clark as she taught different stages of the war. She encouraged the students to see the war, to see history, through the eyes of Clark and his friends and loved ones.

“It was kind of like a cliffhanger,” Swenson said. “Every day I would tell them a little more about Stanley Clark’s experience. They enjoyed hearing about what he did for fun and about his friends.”

Swenson never told the students the end of the story, that Clark was killed in battle, until the end of the year. The students, who felt like they knew the man, experienced a bit of the sadness his loss created a half-century before. Echoes of that pain still exist in the surviving members of Clark’s family.

“He didn’t come back. He died,” Swenson said. “I think that is something that is not spoken about enough when we teach World War II. Over 400,000 Americans were killed. Stanley Clark was one of them. I feel like the kids need to hear that. During war, young men die. It affects families. It affects individual lives.”

TELLING STORIES

Taking part in the program involved a lot of hard work that Swenson had to fit in around her regular teaching duties, but there is no part of the experience she did not enjoy.

She thought the foreign travel would be her favorite, but in truth, she said, she enjoyed the research perhaps most of all. It gave her an opportunity to delve into the history of World War II in a way she never had before and forced her to vet her information exhaustively because she knew it would be published for others to see. She had to learn to interview people in a way that was sensitive, but also coaxed them into giving her the information she needed.

“I’ve been a history teacher for years, but I don’t think I’ve been a real historian,” Swenson said. “I got a little taste of it and it’s given me a lot of food for thought for how I want to teach this subject.”

Kate Sheldon, fifth-grade teacher at Shapleigh School in Kittery and board president of the Maine Council for Social Studies, said teaching and researching history are too often exclusive.

“A lot of teachers miss that,” she said. “It might be a chance to sort of reignite the passion.”

Gower will do research, attend classes and write papers explaining what he learned and drawing his own conclusions, just as he asks his students to do.

“It’s so different being on the other side,” Sheldon said. “He’ll take that back to the classroom. The kids will end up benefiting from it.”

Gower is still unsure whose life he will study. He would love to do more research on Frelan Goddard, but he wonders about stories of other Maine soldiers that are still untold. There are 14 Maine soldiers in the Rhone cemetery and more at Normandy.

Gower said all have something to teach us.

“It would be really neat, long-term, to find out information about all those soldiers,” he said. “If we found just one more treasure trove of information, it would be amazing to tell their story. I feel optimistic that there has to be at least one more Maine soldier there that we can tell their story.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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